The bio-fortified cassava which is rich in vitamin A is becoming widespread in Africa, driven by increasing awareness of its health and nutrition benefits; and the variety is changing the description of cassava – a root crop often referred to as “Africa’s best kept secret.”
Consumed by over 300 million people in Africa, cassava has been marginalized in several debates because of myths and half-truths about its nutritional value and role in farming systems. The greatest burden of the crop is the stigma of being considered an inferior, low-protein food that is uncompetitive with the glamorous crops such as imported rice and wheat.
“But the perception about cassava is changing… with vitamin A cassava, we are not talking just about a crop that is rich in starch but about a crop that has one of the vitamins that are most important for human Development”, said Dr Wolfgang Pfeiffer, Deputy Director (Operations), HarvestPlus at the just concluded Crop Meeting in Abuja, 22-23 September.
Popularly called yellow cassava, vitamin A cassava was bred by a coalition of partners, including International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) Umudike, and International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and released in Nigeria in 2011. The first wave consisting of three varieties was disseminated to hundreds of thousands of farmers across the country. Farmers’ adoption of the varieties is on an impressive scale and the appeal for the varieties has fuelled their spread for research trials to other African countries including Republic of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and Ghana.
“Demand for the varieties is up and we have engaged farmers for multiplication,” Pfeiffer explained. “Our strategy is to get planting materials available to farmers so they can consume these nutritious varieties and improve their health.”
Vitamin A deficiency is a malady in Nigeria affecting about 20 percent of pregnant women and 30 percent of children under 5 years, elsewhere in Africa the statistics are no better. A lack of or a deficiency of vitamin A lowers immunity and impairs vision. This can lead to blindness and even death.
Paul Ilona, Country Manager, HarvestPlus Nigeria, estimated that about 2 billion people suffer from hidden hunger in which vitamin A is an integral part.
He said that HarvestPlus and its partners were working on several staples to address hidden hunger, adding that in general the organization had worked with partners to release bio-fortified crops in 27 countries including those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Ilona gave insights into why cassava had been chosen for bio-fortification in Nigeria, highlighting the fact that the crop’s easy accessibility to resource-poor farmers made it a preferred candidate for use as a vehicle to convey vitamin A to target beneficiaries—women and children under 5. Besides, other factors such as food preferences, the number of people consuming cassava and cassava-based products, and the size of the population of those in need of vitamin A were also considered in the selection of cassava and Nigeria as a pioneer country. Since the roll out of the varieties, there has been remarkable progress and stakeholders are excited over the development.
Nigeria excited over progress
John Uruakpa, a Director with the Federal Ministry of Health (Micronutrient Deficiency Control), said, “We are glad that HarvestPlus is complementing our efforts to address vitamin A deficiency.”
He was optimistic that the adoption and consumption of the yellow cassava varieties would give a further push to ongoing efforts to address vitamin A deficiency.
Current efforts besides bio-fortification include the fortification of commodities such as flour and sugar, promotion of dietary diversity, and the use of supplements (drugs).
Partners pledge support
Partners including farmers who attended this year’s Crop Meeting pledged their support to ongoing efforts to help mitigate vitamin A deficiency.
Dr Alfred Dixon, Project Leader, Cassava Weed Management Project at IITA, said the Institute would continue to collaborate with HarvestPlus, especially in the area of breeding, to ensure that improved varieties were made available to farmers.
He also pledged IITA’s commitment to work with HarvestPlus in the area of weed science to address the menace of weeds in cassava farms.
Dixon’s commitment was re-echoed by J.C. Okonkwo, Executive Director of NRCRI.
Okonkwo expressed NRCRI’s support for bio-fortification, stressing that it was one of the most economically viable options for reaching the poor and addressing vitamin A deficiency.
He commended the HarvestPlus team in Nigeria under the leadership of Paul Ilona for the support given to NRCRI over the years.
Next phase of operations
In 2015, HarvestPlus activities will be more private sector driven with more commercial farmers coming on board. The distribution of free cassava stems would continue through the farmer-to-farmer scheme, spreading into spillover States where the dissemination of vitamin A cassava is yet to commence.
“Targeting commercial farmers brings sustainability for the vitamin A project in Nigeria,” Ilona said. “To ensure that vitamin A cassava products become a household item in Nigeria, marketing activities to create demand and promote supply are critical activities for next year.”
HarvestPlus in conjunction with its 16 partners aims at establishing 3000 sales outlets in Nigeria for vitamin A cassava stems, fufu, gari flakes, cassava tubers, and packaged products targeting children and adults.
Endorsement from Nollywood
And with the launching of the four Nollywood movies, entitled Yellow Cassava, a new dimension has been brought into the marketing mix of the varieties.
“When we started with bio-fortification in the 1990s, I never imagined in my wildest dreams that such a movie première would happen— the use of Nollywood as a channel to educate Nigerians on the importance of Vitamin A and to create demand for Vitamin A cassava. ’’ Howarth Bouis, Director, HarvestPlus, said this during the première of the movies, 24 September, at the Silverbird Cinemas, Abuja.
The next step is the distribution of the movies through the broad extension networks within the different States —the Agriculture Development Programs, rural NGOs, and the National Orientation Agency. The films will be shown in villages, specifically in town halls, particularly on market days and during festive periods, to educate millions of rural households on the benefits of eating more nutritious foods. It is envisaged that the four films will be launched in each of the target States (Oyo, Benue, Akwa–Ibom, and Imo). All of this will no doubt change the way in which cassava is perceived.