How technology can boost Nigeria’s untapped cassava wealth

Sayedero market were garri is being sold
Sayedero market where garri is being sold

With the edge of her wrapper, Bola wiped off beads of sweat running through her forehead. Outside the shade under which she sat with her colleagues, the afternoon sun shone with fury.

Bola had peeled cassava tubers for more than two hours before PREMIUM TIMES’ reporter arrived her mother’s shop in Ilaro, a community in Ogun state, she said.

Together with her younger ones, she explained that she would peel two baskets of cassava tubers before dusk. On two occasions in the past, one of her coworkers had her fingers cut during the activity, she lamented.

“It’s very tedious but once you finish peeling the cassava, the process becomes easier,” she explained, forcing a bland smile, her knife carefully placed by the side of the cassava basket.

She would soon be joined another worker.

Like many communities across Nigeria, the business of cassava processing is widespread among residents and indigenes of Ilaro. While many people process the crop into garri, Nigeria’s popular household food staple, others produce fufu––another delicacy- from it.

Cassava is produced in at least 30 out of the 36 states that make up the Nigerian federation, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

With over 47 millions metric tonnes per hectare, Nigeria is regarded as the largest producer of cassava across the globe.

Untapped Money Spinner?

In 2017, a professor at the University of Port Harcourt, Aloy Ezirim, lamented that Nigeria could earn billions in foreign currency from cassava tubers it produces annually if things are done right.

Mr Ezirim argued that rather than producing for household consumption alone, Nigeria could support cassava processors to produce in industrial scale and export.

Most of the world’s population relies on plant-based diet, food and agriculture experts said, adding that over 800 million people worldwide depend on cassava for food.

“There are I think over 35 varieties of cassava in use,” said Yemi Ajao, a student of the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta.

Mr Ajao added that cassava is processed in many processing centres across Nigeria because the produce has numerous application for food production, including local staples like fufu, garri, lafun, starch, tapioca, pupuru among others.

Despite its potential, a huge population of people involved in cassava processing in Nigeria especially at the grassroots still make do with manual means of processing the farm produce.

PREMIUM TIMES’ findings show that they cannot produce on industrial scale due to a number of concerns.

Laborious Processing

The process of having cassava converted into other food staples, as PREMIUM TIMES findings in Ilaro showed, is still largely laborious across the numerous stages involved among grassroots cassava processors.

Findings confirm that it is still largely the same in many parts of the country.

In Ilaro, ‘Bola’s mother, who declined to have her name in print, however told PREMIUM TIMES the means adopted by most local cassava processors at the grassroots is not as cumbersome and laborious as it appeared.

“No, it is not laborious like that,” she said in her native Yoruba. She then takes her time to explain the four-day long process.

“If it’s fufu you intend to process, once you cut the cassava, you pour it in a drum and leave it for three days, mixed with water. By the third day, it would have become easy to process. Then you sieve the water, rinse the cassava and pour in fresh water. You may also leave it for another day afterwards.

“You then pour it in a basket and rinse again, when it is okay, you pour it into the frying pan or basin and you begin to put on fire. Then as you can see, you stir for several minutes and wrap as the case may be.”

Bola on her part explained that the process involved in fufu production is quite different from garri because, according to her, it is less cumbersome.

Like most women who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES in Ilaro, ‘Bola said she has never been exposed to modern machineries that could ease cassava processing but the old mechanised method her mother adopts is not entirely bad.

She said, “If it’s garri you want to process, you take the cassava to the machine for grinding, put in rinsing machine––known as ‘Korokoro’ in Yoruba–– and you wait till the third day.

“On the third day, you sieve it and put in basin or frying pan where you fry it into garri.”

Modern Technique

But Wale-Joseph Dare, an Osun-based engineer who deals in setting up cassava processing factory, machinery fabrication, installation, and training, told PREMIUM TIMES the manual process is counterproductive.

He explained that the modern means of processing cassava is easier “by a mile” when compared to the laborious means employed by most local processsors.

“You don’t really need much labour and you can process large quantity at a batch,” he explained. According to him, the number of days it requires may remain same, the process is much less cumbersome and the quantity produced is far higher.

He explained that there are machines that could be deployed at each stage of processing, from peeling cassava tubers through grating to frying.

At a mini factory in Abeokuta, Ogun state capital, he told PREMIUM TIMES there are various machines that could ease the laborious process across the stages: grating machine, frying machine, hydraulic presser, among others.

“When the skin of the cassava is hard, it peels just 70 to 80 per cent,” he said of the peeling machine. “But when it is soft, it peels 95 per cent.

“There’s the automatic frying machine which entails you put in your cassava pulp, switch on the machine and watch it do the frying.

“There is the grater, used for breaking down peeled cassava tubers into ‘slurry’ before pressing, while the grinder is used for breaking large particles of processed garri into smaller particles.”

There is also the hydraulic and automatic presser, used to ‘dehydrate’ the cassava, he explained.

“The hydraulic presser needed to be jacked manually to remove water, while the automatic only needs you to press a button to do so. But the real difference is that the automatic will press four times of the hydraulic in a quarter of time it’ll take the manual to do the same.”

Although Mr Dare said there is no average production figure, the machines could help process between five to 20 bags of cassava tubers or more per day–––far higher than the manual process which requires huge number of people who may produce less than five bags, on the average.

“Manual can do the same as automatic in some cases,” Mr Dare said, “It’ll only require more labour, more machines, more land space.”

Easy but expensive

When probed on why most grassroots processors do not adopt the modern process, Mr Dare said it is expensive to run and many local processors would not be able to afford it.

He added that the modern means remains the only way interested investors can produce in large quantity.

At Isale Hossanah area of Ilaro, off the link road that leads to the Federal Polytechnic Ilaro, PREMIUM TIMES observed that the basins inside which the cassava is poured are relatively  exposed to flies and other germs, raising questions around how hygienic the traditional process is.

Mr Dare said one major advantage of the modern processing machines is the hygienic condition under which the cassava is processed. Unlike the traditional means, one can ensure the processing is done with some measure of hygiene, he said.

‘Weapon Of Poverty Alleviation’

In March 2017, Audu Ogbeh, Nigeria’s agriculture minister, said cassava remained one major crop that helps fight poverty in Nigeria.

Speaking at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Mr Ogbeh said the crop can be processed into multiple end-products that could help people earn good income.

Represented by the director of Root and Tubers at the ministry of agriculture, Olusegun Ayeni, the minister said cassava could be processed into garri, fufu and other food just as the nation has experienced increase investments in cassava processing such as flour, ethanol and starch.

When in February 2017 details emerged that Nigerians were consuming “Indian Garri” said to have been imported into the country, many commentators were alarmed.

Given the quantity and quality of cassava the nation produces, experts said Nigeria had no business importing cassava end-products.

As part of its diversification policies, in recent years, the Nigerian government has shown considerable interest in agriculture, with focus on rice and cassava farming.

There have been trainings to develop manpower just as there have been policies and initiatives––like the International Fund for Agricultural Development-Value Chain Development Programme,  IFAD-VCDP––directed at supporting local farmers and cassava processors.

In 2017, the National Programme Co-ordinator of the IFAD-VCDP, Ameh Onoja, said the programme has increased the productivity and income levels among rice and cassava producers, processors and marketers nationwide.

Aside supporting farmers, he said, the programme has provided and constructed feeder roads leading to its clusters. He listed the six participating states to include Anambra, Benue, Ebonyi, Niger, Ogun and Taraba states.

The objective, he said, was to enhance on a sustainable basis the income and food security of poor rural households engaged in the production, processing and marketing of rice and cassava in the targeted local government areas in the participating states.

In June, IFAD said it trained 250 cassava and rice farmers on entrepreneurial skills in Ogun state.

Similarly, the Bank of Agriculture also provides loans to support the agricultural value chain through micro-credits to poor people from villages as well as technical support for rural dwellers.

But local processors who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES said the challenge with most government initiatives is the inability of those at the lower rung of the value chain to access these benefits.

“Often, it is difficult to access government’s programmes and benefits because officials find it difficult to locate many cassava processors in villages and local communities,” she explained.

She added that a few government officials have come up with training and empowerment schemes which sought to improve their businesses in the past but they will need to do

more, especially in human capacity development.

Wasted Wealth?

Last January, the national president of Nigeria Cassava Growers Association (NCGA), Segun Adewumi, said that cassava can trigger massive industrial revolution that will earn Nigeria

over N20 trillion yearly.

“Cassava is actually the answer to the economic woes of Nigeria,” he said, adding that it has five major industrial products namely, ethanol, industrial starch, cassava flour, glucose syrup and sweetener.

These products, he said, are also raw materials for numerous utility items with limitless domestic and export market potentials.

All the nation needs to do is to devote 5 million of the 84 million hectares of the arable land in Nigeria to cassava development and that will yield 200 million metric tonne of cassava, Mr Adewunmi argued.

According to him, 200 million MT of cassava will produce 50 million MT of starch while 50 million MT of starch sells for N350, 000 per ton and that will generate N17.5 trillion.

But while local processors of the produce expend energy and days on low quantity of processed products using traditional method, a whole lot of these other items realisable from cassava are lost in the process.

Along Sayedero market in Ilaro, PREMIUM TIMES observed how starch and other end-products realised from cassava are disposed at the side of the road by local processors.

Ignorance and lack of understanding of best practices account for the development, PREMIUM TIMES’ findings showed.

“You can only produce garri and fufu from the cassava and nothing else,” said Sade, a local cassava processor at Isale Hosanna, the biggest cassava processing hub in Ilaro.

More than two other local processors in Ilaro and Otta, another community in Ogun state, also claimed the major food staples––garri, fufu, poporo, lafun etc––are what could be realised from processed cassava.

In his reaction, Mr Ajao said the claim is borne out of ignorance and called on government to organise sensitisation programmes to maximise the nation’s potential in cassava production.

Mr Dare, on his part, said the challenge lies in the quality of training and exposure to modern technologies the local cassava processors have.

He argued that the government would need to deliberately educate local farmers and processors on other potential end-products inherent in cassava, beyond the staple food realised from the produce.

Adamson Janet, one of the leaders of cassava processors in Isale Hossanah, corroborated Mr Dare’s argument when she told PREMIUM TIMES the challenge is the ‘little exposure’ farmers and cassava processors at the grassroots have to modern ways of handling farm produce.

“Most farmers and cassava processors are barely educated and government would need to deliberately target them for orientation,” she said in Yoruba.

Way Forward

Mr Dare said Nigeria will realise its full potential in cassava processing and production when the government ensures that policies are designed to protect local participants in the value chain––from farmers through engineers, processors and other active players.

He also called on the government to support engineers and other people involved in producing technical support in the value chain as most of the materials needed to set up a cassava processing factory are imported.

“First, we don’t produce anything in Nigeria,” he said. “Stainless steels are imported, engines are imported, even the tools we work with are imported. Do you think they are produced locally? We only fabricate. Fabricate is the word. We all fabricate in Nigeria. No one produces the materials.”

To support players across the value chain and unleash Nigeria’s cassava potential, he said, the government needs to increase patronage and help design “flexible repayment grants, low interest loans, (and) policies banning importation of agro processing machines that could be produced locally”.

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