Cassava: A Reliable Crop Amid Climate Variability
Many people in Kenya grow their own food, selling their surplus to earn money. But in arid and semi-arid areas, seasonal rainfall patterns result in water scarcity during dry periods. This can leave communities dependent on emergency food relief.
After the severe drought in 2008/09, many farmers reverted to traditional crops such as cassava, millet and sweet potatoes. These crops take little time to mature and can sustain families during long droughts.
Cassava, which is high in carbohydrates, feeds many families. It is very versatile; the root can be eaten raw or cooked, milled into flour for Ugali and bread, or processed into chips. And the leaves can also be eaten, providing proteins, vitamins A and B and other minerals. Cassava can grow in low nutrient soils because of its massive leaf production; the leaves drop to the ground forming organic matter and recycling soil nutrients. It also uses less water than maize.
Farming cassava in Mutomo
Rainfall in Mutomo, Eastern Kenya, has been scarce over the last few years. Under these conditions, maize the primary crop failed and left many families without food or income.
The organization `Revitalisation of Indigenous Initiatives for Community Development' (RINCOD) carried out needs assessments in 2009. During these, community groups agreed to start the Mutomo Cassava Production and Processing Association (MUKAPA). The project involves more than 100 households and has established high-yielding, disease and drought resistant cassava varieties developed by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). These have several benefits:
· The new varieties yield over 20 tonnes per acre, twice the yield of other varieties. · The roots can be left in the soils for up to 24 months, so they can be harvested all year round.
Cassava farming has been replicated widely; for example over 300,000 households now grow improved cassava in Western Kenya. Fresh cassava tubers and processed cassava products are now available in local and urban markets in the region.
What are the challenges?
· Cassava has the stigma of being a `poor man's food' in Eastern Africa. However, this view seems to be gradually changing as its advantages over maize become known more widely. · Cassava has a short shelf life once harvested. To make it marketable, it has to be processed to last for a longer period. This requires investment in processing plants such as solar drying and grinding machines; these are already adding value in some areas. · Cassava plantations can be affected by cassava mosaic disease a seed-borne viral disease which is not treatable. This can be avoided through using clean planting materials certified by research institutions.
· Cassava contains cyanide and, if prepared poorly, can cause cyanide poisoning. The new varieties developed by KARI have lower cyanide levels than previous varieties, reducing this risk considerably.
The extraordinary hardiness and drought tolerance of the new cassava varieties make them a reliable crop, even with rising temperatures and an ever-drier climate. MUKAPA's experience shows cassava has huge potential to enhance food security, especially if scaled-up to reach Kenya's very dry areas.