• Most homes in Busia grow some cassava. A farmers' group does value addition but is struggling with drying, transport
• A factory for cassava processing remains idle as production is low, as is market access
A farmers' group in Busia county is seeking to raise the esteem of the cassava crop, long derided as a poor man’s diet.
The Tangakona Commercial Village actually thrives on account of the hardy tuber. Group chairperson Catherine Otaga knows that virtually every homestead in Busia county grows some cassava. “A family that doesn’t is considered the poorest,” she says.
Her organisation processes cassava. Farmers from various parts of Busia county and beyond deliver the crop to the firm’s base. The produce is dried at least for three days if the weather permits. By the fourth day, the moisture content has dropped to the desired level.
In many homes, cassava is hardly consumed on its own. It has to be mixed with something else. Many are the options at Tangakona for provision of value addition to this starchy food.
As the cassava dries within the premises of the village, some members of the group get engrossed in cutting pumpkins and scraping off their yellow flesh and seeds onto a surface. These, too, are dried for several days.
“We have a machine that grinds 10 tonnes of cassava per day,” Otaga says. Plain white flour arises. Composite flour is one of the group’s most popular products. Cassava and sorghum flours are mixed. The result is light brown flour that may be used for ugali.
The dried pumpkin parts — skin, flesh and seeds — are milled together, producing yellowish flour. “We take a certain ratio of the pumpkin flour and high quality cassava flour and mix them,” Otaga says. “I may add some little chilli or salt to make crackies or porridge.”
Cassava may also be used for porridge with ingredients such as soya or pumpkin. Besides, “We make crisps,” says Otaga. The group’s products feature in displays during agricultural field shows.
The Tangakona Commercial Village, with a membership of more than 360, derives a low-scale market for crackies from nearby shops and school canteens. “School children love them very much,” Otaga says. “We aspire to target supermarkets in Busia and other counties in future.”
The group was formed in 2011. It originally began as a self-help group with the objective of collectively marketing its products. It became a community-based organisation that has grown to a cooperative.
CLEAN PLANTING MATERIALS
All ventures are laden with challenges. Rainy or cloudy weather is not conducive to drying cassava. This demands a drier. “Whereas our machine can process up to 10 tonnes in a day, our drier can accommodate only one tonne,” Otaga says.
Delivery of the cassava to the firm’s base depends on boda bodas. Considering how heavy a sack of freshly harvested cassava is, the youth who ferry the crop sometimes abandon those sacks, especially when the weight contributes to the damage of the motor bicycles.
At the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation farm in Alupe lies a parcel of land set aside for multiplication of improved cassava-planting materials, under the Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture Project. Farmers in regions with wide agro-ecological characteristics are being targeted.
Selina is one of the cassava varieties dotting the farm. The Kalro cassava breeder in Alupe, Dr Lynet Navangi, says, “Selina is a local name that people gave this variety. It is high-yielding.”
Dr Navangi says there’s been a challenge in getting clean virus-free planting materials in Busia county. Kalro, with the assistance of the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, managed to identify clean cassava planting materials from Mundika and Amukura.
Breeders call the Selina variety MM96/0806. “It is improved and is resistant to cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease,” Dr Navangi says.
The Alupe Kalro Centre director, Dr George Ayaga, wouldn’t like to picture a scenario where farmers produce tonnes of cassava without a ready market for it. It’s a relief that there’s a factory marked for cassava processing in Simba Chai within the county.
However, the factory remains idle as cassava production is low. Dr Ayaga believes that by organising farmers with clean materials produced at the Centre, coupled with clear expectations from the factory, the notion that cassava is a poor man’s crop will change. It will become an industrial crop.
“We are discussing with the county government to see how best to organise farmers to respond to market demands for cassava,” Dr Ayaga says.
“We have had problems with varieties that were initially tolerant to disease but they degenerated,” Dr Ayaga says. “We now have improved varieties.”
Kalro aims to plant 30 acres of cassava at the Alupe site. So far, the crop covers 20 acres. Other varieties that are also resistant to mosaic and cassava brown streak diseases have also been developed by Kalro.
Several organisations partnered to find a remedy for some of the viral diseases afflicting the cassava. “Cassava brown streak disease is new and very dangerous. It can lead to 100 per cent yield loss,” Dr Navangi says.
One advantage of cassava is that it easily grows in good and poor soils. It’s drought-tolerant. It’s hardly affected by floods if there’s proper drainage. It’s climate-smart. Extensive land preparation for the crop is not necessary. A farmer simply plants in moist soil stem cuttings and the cassava springs to life after the roots begin forming.
“Cassava does not need fertiliser,” says Dr Ayaga. “That means it’s tolerant to soil infertility.”
The tuber doesn’t require a lot of weeding. It can also be harvested at any time of the year.
It flourishes in virtually all agro-ecological conditions as a relatively labour-free food crop. There’s more work in cassava value addition than in tending the crop, whose roots are highly appreciated as a starchy staple.
Dr Ayaga says with the improved seed varieties, farmers can increase their yield for subsistence but more so for economic gains by meeting market demands.
Before value addition, 1kg of dried cassava chips fetches Sh45. “The price is not good,” Otaga says. “When ground into flour, it goes for Sh60. If we combine with sorghum or millet, we sell a kg at Sh120. So we’re aiming at more value addition.”
Otaga laments that many people have not come to fully appreciate the importance of cassava. “I cannot compare the value of cassava composite flour with maize flour,” she says.
Edited by T Jalio