The humble cassava plant is on the threshold of boosting household incomes and causing a revolution in livelihoods in rural Uganda.
For long considered a poor man’s crop to be eaten during famine, cassava has the potential to save Uganda $300m following breakthroughs in commercialisation of the plant.
Introduced from Brazil by the Portuguese in the seventeenth century, cassava is lifeblood of many millions of Africans.
For a long time it has been labelled a famine reserve crop, which you plant, leave in the ground and go back to harvest when famine hits.
Scientists at the African Innovations Institute in Kampala led by Prof. William Otim-Nape have transformed cassava from a famine reserve and a subsistence crop to a high value commercial crop.
Multiple commercial use Working with the Natural Resources Institute of the University of Greenwich in the UK, the scientists found out that cassava can serve as a better alternative for wheat flour and corn starch for many industrial products, including manufacture of lager beer, bread, biscuits, sausages, paper boxes, alcohol for vehicles and cook stoves and fructose for soft drinks.
It can also be used in making biodegradable plastics and in textiles and pharmaceutical products.
Uganda currently imports approximately 40,000 metric tonnes of wheat flour or $300m annually.
This was confirmed by Prof. Otim- Nape at a recent workshop at Imperial Royale Hotel in Kampala.
The workshop was called to brief stakeholders of the progress made so far and to plan for the next phase of the project.
“We are excited at this potential and the sky is the limit” said Dr. Francis Alacho, the programme manager for Cassava Adding Value for Africa (C: AVA) funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
We are now focusing on bringing this potential on the table.
According to Otim-Nape, technological breakthroughs have been made with card box and biscuit manufacturers and bakeries and sausage industries.
Breweries are keen to join the race, and so are ethanol distilleries.
“Some ethanol distilleries from the UK and US and an oil company from West Africa have approached me about setting up distillation plants for ethanol for cook stoves and motor fuel respectively.
We are seeing a revolution. The time for cassava is now,” said Otim- Nape.
Faced with the frustration of a slump in cassava prices caused by a glut in cassava production after controlling the dreaded cassava mosaic epidemic in the 1990s, Professor Otim-Nape turned his brain to commercialisation of cassava.
“It became clear to me that unless we open markets and turn cassava into a commercial crop, our efforts at increasing productivity will achieve limited impact.
Farmers must get the incentives that will drive them to look for improved technologies to improve their production, and that incentive is money,” Otim-Nape observed.
Current demand for High Quality Cassava Flour (HQCF) is about 45,000 tonnes per year, but this is expected to skyrocket as the country continues appreciating more golden values of the crop.
Otim-Nape is optimistic that once the production challenges are dealt with, the sky is the limit for cassava, and farmers and processors will reap big from the crop.
It will also reduce the volumes of imported wheat, save our foreign exchange and support the growth of small scale industries involved in fabricating processing machines.
Use of cassava as a replacement for wheat flour in various products could save the country a good portion of its foreign currency.
Uganda produces 5.5 million tonnes of fresh cassava annually.
Turning a good portion of this for industrial use could transform farming and the economy.
Caroline Night, the Britania quality assurance manager, said the company will look to high quality cassava flour for their further industrial growth.
Simple value addition
Through its rural-based processing technology, cassava roots are peeled, washed, grated, dewatered and sun dried within a day and must meet food and industry standards of the East African Community.
C: AVA also trains rural women to use HQCF for baking different products.
The institute has supported about 8,000 farmer processors to establish nine HQCF processing centres in eastern Uganda, specifically in Bukedea, Pallisa, Kumi, Serere, Soroti, Kibuku and Ngora districts.
The project is now expanding into northern Uganda and hopes to hit 20,000 farmers and processors by end of 2015.
It is also working with its partners in Nigeria, UK and China to bring in modern processing machines for commercial and industrial processing of HQCF.