Cassava: Africa's Critical Cash Crop
This post was written by Marta Schneider, a senior at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois and eIntern with the Bureau for Food Security Knowledge Management team. Marta was tasked with getting the scoop on cassava, an important, multi-use staple crop in the developing world.
On September 26, 2013 in Washington D.C., the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) held a roundtable seminar to bring together experts on initiatives, policy, conceptualization, and implementation that is directly related to transforming agriculture in Africa, which is considered to be one of the top developmental challenges. Yaya Olaniran, the current permanent representative of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to the Rome based food agencies of the UN and the chair of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), noted that cassava could be used singularly or in combination as flour for bread, as a component for ethanol, and as a food sweetener, making it a crop of critical importance to Africa.
Cassava, a native shrub of South America, looks like any other common leafy plant until it is harvested from the ground. Its long, tentacle like roots that shoot out from the center of the plant can be a good source of carbohydrates, calcium, vitamin B, vitamin C and other essential minerals. Beyond that cassava can be used to produce “confectionery, sweeteners, glues, plywood, textiles, paper, biodegradable products, monosodium glutamate, and drugs.” However, cassava must be prepared with great care before production or consumption as it does contain toxins. Poorly prepared cassava can leave large traces of residual cyanide, which can lead to intoxication and event partial paralysis.
The cassava root has a high drought tolerance, making it an ideal food source for areas with marginal soil. It is also a great source for food security since it grows underground which makes it harder to remove. It does face some problems with pests and plant disease. The major pests are the green mite and the variegated grasshopper. The main disease affecting cassava is cassava mosaic disease (CMD). In the past, CMD was responsible for as high as fifty percent of cassava losses. According to IITA, after cassava has been planted, it can be harvested any time between six months to three years, allowing dependability. However, after it has been removed from the ground, there is a quick turnaround before it will begin to rot and no longer be storable in that form.
The IITA estimates that in Africa “37% of dietary energy comes from cassava” and that “nearly every person in Africa eats around 80 kilograms of cassava per year”. If cassava is to be a staple crop for Africa in the future, better strains that produce less cyanide, are more pest and drought resistant, and produce higher yields will play a key role in ensuring that the citizens of these African countries are able to continue to depend and further expand their use of this versatile plant.