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April 25, 2009

Concerns over cassava mosaic disease in West Africa

by Everest Onyewuchi

There is fear of imminent scarcity of local staple food, garri, following an outbreak of a destructive cassava mosaic disease.

Information made available by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan has it that the mosaic disease which almost wiped out cassava plants in Nigeria in the early 1970s, has resurfaced again in a more vicious form.

Experts from the IITA warned that the more virulent strain of the dangerous cassava disease could wipe out a huge number of cassava farms in West Africa, even as the institution is battling to find an antidote to the pest.

An official of the agricultural research institute, James Agba, said that the disease was threatening to wipe out the crop in Nigeria, Cameroun, Ghana and Togo.

”A diagnostic survey by our experts has detected the new strain of the disease in West Africa. The disease combines features of strains earlier discovered in West Africa and East Africa,” he said.

According to a statement by the IITA, ”The disease presents a tiny, black mosaic dots on the leaves and produces powdery substances on the stems of the cassava plant. It leaves affected plants stunted and depresses their yield by more than 80 percent.”

Nigeria is currently the world's leading producer of cassava. This outbreak has created an emergency response from agricultural experts in the country. These experts are toiling to ensure that the disease is checked and put under control.

”It might interest you to know that Nigeria earns lots of foreign exchange from cassava export, so we are at risk of running a big foreign exchange shortage if the disease continues to destroy the crop” said Adebisi Adurangba, an expert in agronomy.

”There is the need to show some concern over the cassava disease because cassava is a popular delicacy in Nigeria and most African countries and the by-product can be converted to starch. It is very important in the African food chain, so it has to be preserved and protected from the destructive disease,” Adurangba added.

Already the cost of garri is rising in the market as a four-litre paint plastic bucket that sold for between N220 and N250 now sells for about N350.

The cassava plant, indigenous to South America, was introduced to West Africa during the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its short maturity period of six months and ability to grow in both dry and rainy seasons quickly made it a staple crop.

Similarly, as the cropping season draws near, resource-poor farmers in northern Nigeria have put forward a demand for more improved seed varieties from scientists working on the Sudan Savannah task force project.

The project comprises a team of IITA researchers working on the Kano-Katsina-Maradi (KKM) Pilot initiative which aims to carry out integrated agricultural research-for-development to address the several constraints facing farmers in the region.

The leader of Aminchi Multipurpose Group at Tabbani village, Musawa LGA, Katsina State, Hajiya Murja Abass, made the demand on behalf of the farmers during the 2009 stakeholders‘ mobilisation exercise which also witnessed the launching of innovation platforms in Katsina State in the presence of the Chairman of Safana LGA, Alhaji Abdulkadir Zakka, and Chairman of Musawa LGA, Dr. Aliyu Musawa.

Abass, a seed producer in the 2008 cropping exercise, pleaded that more improved seeds should be provided by the taskforce in order to meet up with demand from farmers.

”Farmers love the seeds because of the good results they got last year. The improved seeds yield thrice the normal harvest they get using the same hectare of land and the same quantity of seeds,” she said.

Northern Nigeria is home to grain crop such as cowpea, soybeans, groundnut, sorghum, millet and maize among others but constraints such as lack of improved seed varieties, declining soil fertility and poor marketing have limited grain production.

The KKM pilot scheme, which is funded by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), through its recently inaugurated innovation platforms aims to tackle the problems in a holistic manner.

Apart from the IITA, partners in the project include the Katsina State ADP; Kano State ADP; Institute of Agricultural Research, Zaria; National Agricultural Extension Research and Liaison Services; National Animal Production Research Institute; IRNS; two LGAs; and input and output dealers.

The Sudan Savannah taskforce leader, Dr. Alpha Kamara, said the project would help in finding solutions to the numerous constraints faced by the farmers.

”We would also want the local government authorities to fully support the innovation platforms in the implementation of the project activities,” Kamara, who is also an IITA agronomist, said.

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