Introducing the Cassava
Recently recognised as a potential gateway to food security
in Africa, cassava is gaining scientific and commercial
attention. Even Nigerian pop star, D’Banj is
hooked! Food systems expert, Laura Pereira proposes
a game changing blueprint for a progressive industry
boosted by empowered women.
Africally Speaking: Hello Laura. Thank you for speaking to us. So you are a food systems specialist. What does that mean?
Laura Pereira: [Laughs] Basically, it is about trying to understand food by looking at it beyond agricultural production or what ends up on our plates. The idea is rooted in socio-ecological systems. Over the past 10 years or so, there has been a refocusing around food security. This new approach is more holistic in that it trails the trajectory of food items from the farmthrough to processing, retailing and consumption.
AS: Cassava, a major interest of yours, has been identified as a potential enabler of food security across Africa. Why is it still ignored by governments
and private enterprise?
LP: This problem occurs for various reasons. One is the focus on maize, rice and wheat as the three key crops that feed the world. Thanks to the Green Revolution of the 60s and 70s, technological and scientific expertise was poured into developing these crops at the expense of others like cassava which drifted into ‘orphan’ status. Another consequence of technologically enhanced production of major crops is the easy availability of excess yields, which find markets in Africa from outside the continent. Also, there is a stigma attached to cassava. It is often seen as the famine crop – the peasant crop. While working in Nigeria, it was interesting to note the status symbol associated with being able to afford food from abroad. The perception that foreign produce must be better is embedded within a lot of the African psyche. And it is completely ridiculous because our food could be easily appreciated elsewhere. The States, for instance, is buying novel food items such as quinoa! Cassava also suffers another perception problem. Cultivating the crop is seen as more of a subsistence activity than as a commercial enterprise in many parts of Africa. As such, it is still very much grown by smallholders. This makes cassava a difficult crop to scale up.
“Thanks to the Green Revolution
of the 60s and 70s, technological
and scientific expertise was
poured into developing rice, maize
and wheat. Cassava drifted into
AS:That is interesting.Tell me more about these scaling up challenges.
LP: I think the problem is influenced by two major issues, the first one being that small scale farmers do not necessarily have access to various inputs including land space. So cassava tends to be produced in limited amounts as it is usually grown alongside more commercially viable crops like maize. Secondly, it is seen as a crop to fall back on so people tend not to invest in it. In Nigeria, we also realised the need to enable market access for farmers as they were reluctant to grow large amounts of the cassava without guaranteed sales avenues.
AS: Your experiences led you to work on the idea of a Cassava Research University with renowned agriculture expert, Prof Calestous Juma. Please explain the concept. Why does it matter?
LP: The idea is anchored in a food systems approach to agricultural produce. So, one tends not to think of cassava as just a basic food item or erivative such as *garri. It is an entire (value) chain. Quite often, universities focus on agriculture. As such, a lot of research interest and funding go into things like biotech or different farming methods. Other important areas such as storage, processing, drying and safe methods of removing cyanide from cassava are likely to attract less investment. Also, there is a great need to develop better marketing strategies for this product. So we thought that in order to encapsulate the entire value chain, various skills and knowledge required to make it a viable economic endeavour need to be considered. That was where the idea of the Cassava University came from. Our aim is to create a point of confluence for enterprise, scientific research and training in best farming practices which would enable graduates to positively respond and adapt to changing circumstances.
“Cultivating cassava seen as more of a subsistence activity than
as a commercial enterprise in many parts of Africa. It is still
very much grown by smallholders and difficult to scale up.”
AS: Who would qualify to study at such an institution?
LP: The plan is to run courses for a range of people including farmers, entrepreneurs seeking to enter the cassava space and government officials who want to know the best way of creating policies that could benefit this area. It is important to gather the right mix of intellectual capital and knowledge about cassava
for such a university to function effectively. The teaching staff would comprise farmers, scientists and business leaders.
AS: Several agricultural research institutes exist in Africa. Why imagine a Cassava University instead?
LP: Indeed. There are many research institutes on the continent but they tend to attract insufficient interest. We opted for a university because it presents a an ‘easier to embrace’ connotation. Also, when Prof Juma initiated this concept, his aim was to create a space, not just for scientific research but also for community engagement and capacity building. So we envisage the university to have two structures: a main centre, which would have a strong research focus, and spin offs, which, like the main centre, would be transdisciplinary spaces of engagement. However they would address local problems. For example, a spin off centre could be a place where farmers gather to share information on best practice and propose new ideas for research
“We envisage space, not just for scientific
research but also for community engagement
and capacity building.”
AS: Given its position as the world’s largest producer of cassava, Nigeria would be an ideal location for this institution. What has been your experience with the nation’s government concerning this matter?
LP: I found there were clashing priorities at different levels of decision making. Although the governor of Osun State – where I worked for a while – was very interested in collaborating with cassava (and some cocoyam) farmers to set up an institute, it became evident that the private-public stakeholder mix for such a project needed to be negotiated very carefully.
AS: Have any other countries or organisations shown interest in the idea?
LP: The World Bank showed some interest, but we preferred to keep it more in-house. It is all very well having an idea but putting it into practice and ensuring it is done in a way that is sustainable, irrespective of what is thrown at it is really the key. Prof Juma has been in talks with organisations such as the Innovation Institute in Arusha (Tanzania) about possibly implementing the university model, but a concrete set up is not yet on the cards.
AS: How can private investors take advantage of the opportunity of a Cassava University?
LP: There is definitely a space for corporates. Private investment really needs to happen but from an ownership perspective, the best way forward is through a public enterprise as monopolies on this kind of idea are not ideal. Take the dominance of companies like Monsanto and Syngenta around innovations in GM foods for example. This has been problematic because of the intellectual property that gets captured and its possible social implications. Also, the lack of transparency involved makes people even more wary. One could argue for Non Governmental Organisations such as The Gates Foundation as a possible alternative that can bridge the divide between public and business interests more easily but their work, with Monsanto, on drought resistant crops in Africa, has also received some backlash. Despite such risks, private sector input cannot be underestimated. The Cassava University needs to be not just an academic endeavour but also an establishment with real commercial and economic potential.
AS: Are there any significant new developments regarding this idea? How does its future look?
LP: The Global Cassava Initiative is interested in bringing this idea to fruition. We hope our discussions with them, as well as potential public and private sector stakeholders will ignite a coming together of key people who will take things forward.
AS: In a recent study, Nigerian academic, Temidayo Apata, observed an overall female dominance of the cassava value chain in the nation’s South West region. What did you make of the gender dynamics in Osun State?
LP: I found that women dominated the traditional value chain of harvesting, peeling, grating and drying cassava. These labour intensive activities mainly happened at village level where the crop is processed at a central point. However milling plants, where cassava was converted into a commercial product for transportation to markets around the country, were usually run by men. They involved very technical processes which took away the hard work that women were putting into traditional methods. Hence, women, as a workforce, became replacable.
“A cassava university could empower women
with knowledge, entrepreneurial and
mechanical skills to enable them compete
effectively and realise financial benefits
from the crop’s value chain.”
AS: Women could empower themselves by upskilling to take on new roles within a more mechanised work place. Why is this not happening enough?
LP: I think it is because processing facilities tend to be owned by people with capital and these are usually men. Also, women are unlikely to apply for factory jobs because they are usually located far away from their families. The interesting thing about village level processing is that women can have their children around them while working. This set up enables them to mix their traditional duties of taking care of the household with this more commercial aspect [of processing cassava]. However a factory situation is less family friendly; rural women are more likely to opt out of it because cultural norms highly value their ability to care for children at home. City women, on the other hand, are usually more able to make alternative childcare arrangements and can therefore enter mechanised work spaces.
AS: How could a Cassava University enhance economic prospects for women?
LP: A place like that could empower women with knowledge, entrepreneurial and mechanical skills to enable them compete effectively and realise financial benefits from the cassava value chain. Unlike an agriculture or economics department, an all encompassing, interdisciplinary space such as a cassava university would present a platform for raising very important questions such as the impact of gender dynamics and how it could be used in an optimal way within this area.
Follow Laura Pereira on twitter via: @laurap18
Images courtesy of Laura Pereira.
*Garri is a grainy product of cassava, which is widely consumed
across West Africa and in the diaspora.