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July 05, 2010

Cassava turns into source of cash for small-scale farmers in Kenya

by Steve Mbogo

Nicholas Olum has been running a fabricating business for many years but it is only recently that his patience paid off— he was contracted to fabricate cassava-processing machines by two organisations that plan to change the fortunes of cassava farmers.

At Sh60,000 for every machine, not many cassava farmers could afford it.

Cassava is almost exclusively grown by small-scale farmers in Kenya with little disposable income.

In areas where it grows, the cooperative movement is weak, dashing the possibilities of group-owned small processing machines.

But Mr Olum’s change in fortunes has come from a new initiative that is helping farmers to grow cassava exclusively for semi-processing.

It is funded and co-ordinated by Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, Kenya Agriculture Research Institute and Farm Concern International.

The semi-processed cassava is sold to cattle feed manufacturers. The aim is to use the dried chips as a raw material, together with maize, to make cattle feeds. Feed manufacturers said their main raw material, maize, has become scarce and expensive, raising the cost of the animal feeds.

Maize is Kenya’s staple food so there is competition from humans for the same grain.

Connecting cassava farmers to feed manufacturers will provide a reliable source of raw materials to the feed industry since the crop is available throughout the year. Feed manufacturers need consistent quality supply to maintain the feed formula and stabilise prices.

“Our members have been looking for reliable quality and consistent supply of alternative carbohydrate sources. Pressure on maize is forcing us to think of partial substitutes cassava chips will fill this gap,” said Martin Kinoti, Secretary General of the Association of Kenya Feeds Manufacturers.

Most recently, Kenya has suffered poor weather conditions that have resulted in below average production of maize, opting for imports. While imports are cheaper, the cost of transport, especially from the port of Mombasa makes the imported maize even more expensive than the locally grown variety.

Mumbi Kimathi, the director of Farm Concern International said the project is modeled around having cassava villages whose main economic activity is to grow the crop for semi processing. The villages are to be set up in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Farmers will be trained on better cassava farming husbandry, supported to buy the semi-processing machines and facilitated to access a ready market.

“We are initially aiming to set up 120 processing units across East Africa,” said Ms Kimathi.

Farmers will be given new cassava varieties developed by local scientists that are higher yielding, are resistant to the Cassava Mosaic virus that has been a major challenge in the region. The varieties also are resistant to drought and have low cyanide (poison) levels.

In Kenya, cassava processing villages are being set up in Makueni, Mbeere, Bungoma, Webuye, Teso, and Busia.

One of the greatest advantages of cassava is that it is a drought tolerant crop, which means climate change patterns projected to make Kenya agriculture highlands warmer will not affect its yield. Other crops in this category include sorghum and millet.

This explains partly why even institutions like KARI have put more focus to the so called “orphan crops.”

For instance, researchers at KARI Katumani Research Centre in Machakos have already come up with a new variety of cassava that matures in eight months compared to the traditional variety that matures in 13 months.

Evelyne Oswati has been growing cassava for many years in Teso South District. Her village is among those being empowered to become semi-processing zones.

“What I plan now is to increase the area under cassava to 40 hectares from the current 10 hectares to fully take advantage of this ready market,” she said.

Cassava farmers are a highly exploited in Kenya because the crop is mainly consumed at the farm level without any form of processing.

Cassava rots in 48 hours after harvesting. When it is processed, its shelf-live increases to nine months.

So villagers without processing machines have to dispose of their harvest as soon as possible and the middle men take this advantage to buy the crop at rock-bottom prices.

The three-year programme will help 30,000 small holder farmers in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to increase cassava for food and industrial use by processing it at village level.

“It will unlock potential for increased incomes for small holder farmers beyond food usage by means of a model where out of each land portion under cassava cultivation, an estimated quarter of the produce will be dedicated to home consumption while the rest will go to industrial use,” said AGRA.

Although cassava is a drought resistant crop and can grow in soils of low fertility, its high perishability and bulkiness limits transportation and mass market utilisation, confining it to markets around the villages where it is produced.

Village-based value addition will address this challenge by drastically improving supply chain management, post harvest management and prolonged storage.

“We feel that this will be a turnaround for our villages where we will earn some money from selling cassava” said Everlyne Oswat, chairlady, Moyo Safi Women Group in Busia.

“This project will begin the first step of progressively expanding the role of cassava from being just a staple food for human consumption in this region, to an efficient industrial crop like it is in developing economies of Asia, Latin America, and other African countries” said Mrs Anne Mbaabu, Markets Director, AGRA.

Although the use of cassava in the feed industry is relatively new in this region, research has shown that the use of cassava as a substitute for maize can reduce the cost of feed by 20-30 per cent, according to Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Under this project, “commercial villages’ will be mobilised to manage village saving schemes.

Farmers will also be linked to financial institutions that offer credit for purchase of improved seeds.

AGRA has already partnered with Equity Bank in Kenya, Standard Bank in both Tanzania and Uganda and National Micro-finance Bank in Tanzania to unlock credit for small holder farmers and agribusinesses working along staple food value chains.

In developing countries like Brazil, cassava is the main driving force for the dairy and beef industry and the energy sector; in Thailand, cassava is the main foreign cash earner — the country exports all the cassava required for animal feed in the European Union.

The country also takes the African export quota because none of the African countries exports significant volumes.

Business Daily Africa

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