Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Unleashing the power of Cassava to fight hunger and poverty in Malawi

Unleashing the power of the Cassava in Africa, a project funded by USAID and implemented by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in seven countries in East, central and Western Africa, Malawi included is changing the image of the crop and creating a new breed of rural entrepreneurs who are improving their lives and those of surrounding farmers by providing employment and a market for their cassava.

El-Niño sets man on a new cassava path
Meet Augustine Phiri, a farmer from Lilongwe, Malawi, who thanks to an El-Nino warning, changed his attention from maize and tobacco to cassava opening a world of opportunities that would not have been possible with the former crops. In his MbwadiMbwadi gardens in Lilongwe, where he also has a cassava processing plant donated by the Kellogg foundation, the crop takes up the giant share of the land.

Mr Phiri is one of the 22 processors benefiting from the Unleashing the Power of the Cassava in Africa (UPoCA) project of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) that is working to promote cassava as a food security and income-earner among vulnerable communities in Africa. It is working to build the capacity of farmers and processors such as Phiri to grow and process the versatile drought resistant crop.

Under UPoCA, Mr Phiri has been trained on production of high quality cassava flour and other products and recipes using the flour such as donuts, cakes, cookies, chin chins, tit bits and gari, a fermented and cooked cassava flour that is very popular in West Africa; on packaging and marketing, and quality and safety management issues.

After attending the quality and safety management training held in August 2010, he has since installed taps for washing hands all over the centre, all his permanent staff wear uniform and have medical certificates to show they are fit to handle human food.

Mr Phiri has been processing and selling high quality fermented cassava flour, Kondowole, for making nsima, and unfermented high quality flour that is among others used for baking as a substitute for wheat either on its own or mixed with the wheat flour. He sells to local shops and supermarkets and neighbours who come to buy at his home. After the trainings, he has added a new product, gari, and he already has an order of 250 kgs per month from a Nigerian restaurant in Lilongwe.

Mr Phiri says he discovered cassava in 1997 when his wife learnt about the looming el-Niño that would result in extreme climactic conditions at a workshop. They were encouraged to grow cassava which would perform relatively well compared to most crops.

“I did not know much about growing cassava. However, I visited the government’s Chitedze research station where I got more information and was given 30 bundles of planting stems,’ he said.

In 2003, the enterprising farmer was selected as a model farmer under Initiative for Development and Equity in Africa (IDEA) of the Rockefeller foundation promoting cassava commercialization. He took part in a 14-day tour to Tanzania to learn from IITA’s cassava processing sites around Dar es Salaam.

UPoCA in addition to the trainings has donated a grater and a presser, and is also supporting him to tackle some of the bottle necks he is experiencing in his cassava processing.

Processing is hampered during rainy season when drying, an important part of the process, is nearly impossible. He also has to travel long distances to mill his dried cassava chips into flour. UPoCA is looking into appropriate drying technologies such as solar or steam dryers. It will also donate a hammer mill to save him the long trips.

Phiri would like the Malawi people to change their mind set towards cassava: “To the Malawian, food is maize. They only reach out for cassava in times of famine when maize is not available. It is a fire extinguisher but is it not better and less costly to prevent the fire in the first place?’ he asked.

First starch factory in Malawi is revived
Another beneficiary of UPoCA is Mr Elimasi Masimbe, 54, owner of the first ever starch fac¬tory in Malawi that was using cassava as a raw material. However, he had closed shop after only three months in operation as he failed to secure markets from the targeted packaging companies. A series of eye-opening trainings and refurbishment of the factory and equipment by the project has put him back in business.

Today, the factory is a hive of activity processing starch and using the leftovers to make high quality flour, fer¬mented and unfermented and even cooking briquettes.
Alex Nthonyiwa, a project officer with UPoCA says Mr Masimbe, owner of Masimbe investments, was trained on production of high quality cassava flour and other products from cassava, packaging, and marketing and on quality and safety management.

“We also helped him to improve the quality of the starch by renovating the factory and the equipment. We changed the sieves and grater blades which were made of mild steel to aluminium coated ones which do not rust,” he said.

The father of five says the training opened his eyes on other products he can process from cassava and gave him the push to revive his factory. "I did not know we could make cassava flour because in my commu¬nity we only boil it and take it for breakfast or as a snack. Now, I make the fermented flour from the leftovers from starch processing and from all the wastes, make briquettes for cooking,” he said

He is selling high quality unfermented and fermented flours to his neighbours and supplies Kapani Enterprises Ltd, a meat processing factory in Lilongwe, 200 kgs of starch in a month. However, his fac¬tory has a much higher capacity and he is actively looking for more markets.

James Chingangi, deputy production manager at Kapani Enterprises Ltd, says the company usually imported its starch from South Africa but a shortage had forced them to explore local options and they had discovered the cassava starch making factory in Lilongwe.

“First we requested for samples which at first were a bit sandy. But when we pointed this out to them, they refined their processing and now it is good. Every time we run out of starch, we run to them and they never fail us,’ he said.

He says the starch from the factory, which is used for making cold meat and sausages, was reasonably priced and readily available unlike the one coming in from South Africa and they were looking at slowly weaning off the imported one.

Mr Masimbe who started growing cassava on his own initiative in 2000 says he caught the attention of Malawi Enterprise Development Institute (MEDI) that had received funds from Kellogg Foundation to promote cassava commercialization. They were trained on how grow cassava and get good yields and were also given high-yielding varie¬ties, Sauti (a bitter variety) and Manyokola (a sweet variety). He was also given the starch factory to run and purchase cassava from surrounding farmers.

“I was given the factory with different processing machines and a borehole to ensure constant water supply. I started making starch in 2008 targeting the Packaging Industry of Malawi (PIM). However, when I took a sample of the starch, they said it had too much iron. And after 3 months, we stopped processing and closed the factory.”

Mr Nthonyiwa says this was the first starch factory in Malawi and has a lot of potential. “PIM currently imports its starch. If we can get to the bottom of the iron issue then they would not import anymore,” he said

The USAID funded project started in 2008 in response to the food crisis in Africa aims to promote cassava as a food security and income earner making it an engine for economic growth, especially in the rural areas says Dr. Braima James, UPoCA project manager.

“It focuses on the cassava because of its ability to create low and steady prices for basic food products. The project aims to empower farmers and their organizations to provide an adequate supply of cassava products at economically affordable prices,” he said. “It also aims at diversifying cassava uses by stimulating the production of value added cassava based food and industrial products

He says the strategy includes developing and availing to farmers improved cassava varieties and equipping them and agro-processors with the knowledge and skills to reduce postharvest losses. A range of user friendly improved post harvest technologies developed by IITA and national partners have been disseminated for the production of starch, dried chips, high quality cassava flour and other products, thereby adding value to the crop. The processed products have a longer shelf-life.

In Malawi, says Ted Nyekanyeka, the country project officer, the project hopes to distribute planting material to 1,500 farmers. So far the project has distributed 329,750 planting stems to over a thousand farmers dur¬ing the last growing season including orphan care homes, AIDS support and women groups. This growing season, the project expects to support even more from its 40 ha of seed farm expected to provide planting material for 500 ha of land.

The project is working in Ghana, Tanzania, Malawi, Nigeria Mozambique, Democratic of Congo and Sierra Leone.

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