The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has promoted the cassava's potential to move from its status as "a poor people's food into a 21st century crop", guiding high yield trials from as far as Vietnam to Colombia. International investors have also taken a liking to the cassava in several African countries including Mozambique, where www.freshfruitportal.com takes a look at how commercial practices and technology are transforming the fate of this starch-rich tuber.
Esmeralda Cumbe sells cassava in a market in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, sourced through an informal supply chain where a young man brings her small bags of leaves and roots from the Xai Xai district a few hundred kilometers to the north.
The root, which is comprised of 70% water, is highly perishable. By the time the young man reaches Esmeralda in Maputo she may have a day at most to sell her product. And surprisingly, while the robust changes taking place in Mozambique's cassava industry could benefit her in this sense, Esmeralda is unaware of any 'revolution'.
"No idea, amigo. Those roots, you’ll have to cook them today. So...quick, quick," she says.
Branded the ‘cassava revolution,’ private firms in Mozambique have in recent years attempted to rapidly commercialize the production of cassava, the country’s key subsistence crop. The idea is to create more efficient supply chains for small and medium-size producers in order to feed growing private demand for cassava in products such as beer, processed food and ethanol.
British beer manufacturer SAB Miller was one of the first to enter the market. In 2011 the company partnered with the Dutch Agricultural Development and Trading Company (DADTCO), who sourced enough cassava to replace 70 per cent of the expensive imported malted barley in their low-cost beer brand Impala, which belongs to SAB Miller’s local subsidiary Cervejas de Moçambique.
Agronomist Sjaak de Bloois is the rollout manager for DADTCO in Mozambique. He says the 'cassava revolution' is a complicated undertaking in Mozambique - a country with rampant illiteracy, especially in rural communities - but insists local cassava producers are finally starting to understand the commercial potential of their crops.
"In Northern Mozambique we already have 1500 farmers in our registry. They're currently yielding four to five (metric) tons per hectare, which we hope will increase to 15 tons next year and eventually 25 plus," he says.
Let them make cake
DADTCO is the firm responsible for the AMPU machine, a cassava processing unit capable of churning 3.8 metric tons (MT) of cassava roots into 2MT of cake within one hour. The company delivers and installs the mobile machine at the farmer level, to then supply nearby breweries with their product.
The machine effectively curtails the issue of cassava's rapid decay, as the cake produced by AMPU can then be stored for up to two years, or converted into flour or starch.
"The aim is to be able to increase the earnings of growers through the intensification of cassava production and the use of integrated soil fertility management. It will multiply their yields per hectare in a responsible way over the next two to three years, if seasons permit," de Blois adds.
"It's very exciting."
While cassava constitutes around 30% of the calories consumed in Mozambique, it accounts for 6% of the country's gross domestic product, and until now there has not been any large-scale commercial interest in the crop.
De Bloois claims DADTCO's model will bring widespread changes to the lives of many thousands of people in Mozambique, as well as to the overarching structure of the country's agriculture sector.
"There’s a lack of interaction between rural communities and industry - cassava is grown everywhere but no one is making large-scale profits from it.
"With each AMPU unit we’re bring 3,000 to 4,000 farmer families into commercial agriculture."
Mozambique’s National Agricultural Census 2009-10 revealed cassava was produced on approximately 2.3 million small and medium-size farms, out of a total of 3.8 million of a similar size. The majority of growers never take their produce to market.
Cassava - the safety crop?
SAB Miller is currently offering cassava producers cash payments of EUR €40 (US$52) per MT, including transport to the AMPU unit, or EUR €70 (US$91) per MT if the product is delivered by the producer.
As cassava is highly resistant to drought and can be stored in soil for 24 to 36 months, such arrangements are resulting in a drastic shift in the perception of cassava as a safety crop.
DADTCO's rollout with SAB Miller and other beer manufacturers is concurrently underway in South Sudan, Ghana and Nigeria; projects which de Bloois says form part of a broader plan to enter a total of 27 countries in 10 years.
Africa is a strong choice for investors and private firms like SAB Miller. More than 50% of the world's cassava is produced there, and still many regional governments rely on and even subsidize imported wheat for the production of basic goods. This scenario has often exposed poor rural populations to the consequences of international grain price fluctuations, triggering staunch resentment about management of food security issues from governments and agricultural entities.
After the 2008 spike in wheat prices, the cost of bread in Mozambique rose by 50%. In 2010, riots broke out across the country when the price rose again by 17%, with the government announcing it could no longer afford to maintain subsidies for imported wheat.
The FAO estimates that by substituting cassava for flour in bread, Mozambique could save at least US$$15 million per year - a statistic many local and foreign investors are acutely aware of.
Yet, while there is much excitement about the possible outcomes of a shift to cassava-based products, there have been concerns raised about the pace of change in Mozambique, a country in which over half of the national population lives below the poverty line.
James Lafleur, the country director of AgriFUTURO, a USAID initiative based in Maputo, says private firms should be aware of the intimate relationship between economic development in rural communities and soil maintenance, which a push for large-scale cassava production may jeopardize.
"There is no need to use good soils because cassava flourishes in low rainfall, but they are," he says.
"[Agronomists] are concerned about yields but they talk about productivity. They don’t even use the words right."
Around 80% of Mozambique's population is employed in agriculture but many are illiterate and have little to no experience in commercial agriculture. Lafleur says private firms should be cautiously aware of the environment in which they are operating.
"You don’t grow a crop, you grow a series of activities. At the moment agronomists are out there teaching crop management, not business."
But de Bloois insists he and SAB Miller are acting responsibly. Part of the company's purchasing policy includes small business management seminars and a model for crop rotation developed in conjunction with the International Fertilizer Development Centre (IFDC), using pigeon pea, cowpea, sesame and maize.
Organizations like FAO are also contributing to development practice. In May, it released a field guide about crop rotation, which claims to drastically improve cassava yields by moving away from the use of pesticides and traditional tillage like ploughing, to the introduction of practices such as mixed cropping, crop rotation and chemical free pesticides. A trial of its 'Save and Grow' model saw cassava yields in Vietnam increase from 8.5MT to 36MT.
What remains to be seen at the moment, with so many changes taking place in a country accustomed to civil war, poverty and inequality, is if Mozambicans themselves will reap the rewards of a 'cassava revolution'.
Back at the market in Maputo, where some of the country's cassava produce eventually arrives, Esmeralda Cumbe is left with a mound of rotting cassava roots. While she might soon be able to sell her product without worrying about its imminent decay, today she insists she knows nothing about about a 'revolution'. The small time vendor instead just wants to make a sale.
"Okay, if you buy some bananas," she starts. "I’ll knock down the price on those roots."