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Groundbreaking New Technology Makes Cassava Commercialization Possible

Cassava is a highly versatile crop grown by smallholders in more than 100 countries. Its roots are rich in carbohydrates while its leaves contain significant protein, plus iron, calcium, and vitamins A and C. Other parts of the plant can be used as animal feed, and livestock raised on cassava have good disease resistance and low mortality rates.

On the negative side, however, cassava roots are both bulky – 70 percent water – and highly perishable. The crop is also susceptible to pests such as the cassava mealy bug as well as to devastating diseases, particularly cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease. These two viral diseases are spread both by insects and among cut plants.

Commercial interest in marketing a bulky and perishable crop is understandably limited, even when disease-free cuttings are assured. Moreover, because farmers can propagate cassava themselves – despite the risk of spreading disease and reducing productivity – private companies see little value in dealing with the crop.

For these reasons, cassava commercialization has remained elusive for many years. But in 2011, several positive developments came together, leading to successful cassava commercialization by smallholder farmers in Mozambique and subsequent scaling up in Ghana and Nigeria.

This breakthrough in the cassava market was made possible by a creative new invention called the autonomous mobile cassava processing unit, or AMPU, developed and deployed by the private Dutch Agricultural Development and Trading Company (DADTCO). AMPUs utilize a “split processing” technology to convert the cumbersome, water-laden roots of a cassava plant into cake, which can be more conveniently stored, transported and marketed.

One of the earliest buyers to express interest in the new technology was SABMiller, the world’s second largest brewing company, which wanted to use cassava cake for brewing beer. But the company needed a regular supply of quality cassava roots.

The cassava value chain had received a boost in 2010 when the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) awarded a grant to the Mozambique Institute of Agricultural Research (IIAM) to breed disease-resistant cassava varieties. This work led to the release of nine varieties resistant to cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease, four of which proved ideal for processing into cassava cake using AMPUs. Clean cuttings of these four varieties were supplied to a commercial farm that multiplied them under contract with the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC), which disseminated the plants to farmers who had been trained to select clean cassava cuttings.

In 2014, in order to scale up this process and link smallholder farmers to the commercial supply chain and companies like SABMiller, the Scaling Seeds and Technologies Partnership – implemented by AGRA with support from Feed the Future through the U.S. Agency for International Development – awarded grants to IIAM to expand production of clean planting material; to commercial seed company Oruwera Limitada to further multiply cassava from this material; and to IFDC to scale up the training and dissemination of cuttings from Oruwera, as well as to provide business development services to farmers.

This investment will reach 100,000 farmers, ten percent of whom will be effectively integrated into the DADTCO/SAB Miller market system. DADTCO and Ingredion South Africa Office are in preliminary discussions to explore cooperation on cassava processing, a collaboration that would improve both rural economies and food security through the expansion of this staple crop.