Nigeria: Knotty Cassava Tubers Can Change a Nation

When Mathius Karoni shops for bread at his local Park ‘n’ Shop supermarket, he’s not thinking about the contribution he’s making to Nigeria’s national budget or to the farmers struggling to scratch a living from small plots around the country. Nor is he connecting his purchases to reducing Nigeria’s death rate for children under five – one of the highest in the world.

The human relations officer at Diamond Bank is mostly thinking about getting in and out of the store quickly on his lunch break. So he heads to the shelf displaying recently introduced bread made with 20 percent cassava flour – because he prefers the texture and taste. It’s much the same as other sliced bread, he says, but better. And it’s cheaper – 60 percent the price of other loaves.

That’s what Minister of Agriculture Dr. Akin Adesina wants to hear – shoppers who find little to differentiate ‘cassava bread’ from the ordinary variety, except value for money. Banking on that consumer response is a high-stakes bet that could transform the lives of millions of Nigerians.

Adesina, an agricultural economist who says he feels as though he’s prepared for this job all his professional life, knows that eating habits are deeply ingrained. Most consumers will protest noticeable alterations in foods they’re accustomed to buying.

But if the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development succeeds in making cassava flour the norm for commercial bakeries – eventually reaching 40 percent cassava flour in baked goods – the economic gains, officials say, will stretch from the national budget to the poorest farm family.

Cassava is the main source of calories for 500 million people, mostly in tropical or sub-tropical countries. It is drought resistant and available year round, offering at least some cushion against food shortages.

“The cassava flour project for us is very exciting,” Adesina said in an interview, “because Nigeria is the largest producer of cassava in the world. And we are determined that we will also be the largest processor of cassava in the world. We spend roughly $5 billion dollars importing wheat every year, which is not sustainable for us, economically. Politically it just doesn’t make sense.”

Multifaceted agenda to transform Nigeria

Nigeria’s cassava bread initiative is among an ambitious set of programmes designed to transform agriculture and rural livelihoods in this country of 170 million, the most populous of Africa’s 55 nations. The sweeping plans include cutting corruption, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, facilitating agro-processing industries and recapturing once-robust export markets. If successful, the integrated set of interventions will save billions of dollars a year, create millions of jobs, make Nigeria self-sufficient in food and reduce preventable deaths from undernutrition.

Nothing about the plan is easy, but Adesina and his team see it as essential for Nigeria’s future.

Thanks to the oil that began to be exploited during the 1970s – and to a succession of mostly authoritarian governments that abandoned investments in almost every sector except petroleum – Nigeria’s schools, clinics, roads and railways deteriorated. A fertile country that once exported food crops – controlling 42 percent of the global groundnut (peanut) trade, for example – now spends $11 billion a year importing food. Some $4 million of that is for wheat.

Social indicators reflect the distortions of what many Nigerians call ‘the curse of oil’. Most Nigerians – some reports say over 90 percent – live on less than $2 a day. A Save the Children report last month ranks Nigeria near the bottom – 169 out of 176 countries rated – on the well being of mothers. One in six children die before their fifth birthday.

Adesina has a plan and a team that he believes can do much to change all that. Undernutrition underlies more than half of child deaths and ‘stunts’ over 40 percent of the country’s children, meaning they will never reach their intellectual or physical potential, even if they survive into adulthood.

“If no effective action is taken to prevent and control vitamin A deficiency,” says the Micronutrient Initiative, over 80,000 Nigerian children will die annually.

Lowly root promises progress

Cassava is part of the solution. Besides being a good source of calories and grown across most of the country, it can be fortified with essential micronutrients through plant breeding techniques – which Nigeria began doing last year. The enriched variety can be propagated from seedlings by farmers, reducing the cost of planting.

Furthermore, research published in the British Journal of Nutrition shows that people can absorb twice as much beta-carotene from enriched cassava than was previously believed. And those who are most malnourished and Vitamin A-deficient absorb it more quickly, said Dr. Eric Boy, nutrition manager at HarvestPlus, which is working with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) to promote the ‘yellow cassava’ in Nigeria.

The IITA research station at Kubwa village in the Federal Capital Territory in central Nigeria studies cassava varieties. Martin Fregene, a plant geneticist and cassava breeding expert at the Danforth Plant Science Center in the U.S. state of Missouri, returned home to Nigeria to join the agriculture ministry.

On a tour of the experimental plots, Fregene and Kubwa farm manager Francis Olusegun Adunoye said research and evidence-based agriculture is vital to the cassava initiative. Breeding more nutritional varieties adapted to local conditions and increasing disease resistance are among the goals.

Nearly 90 percent of cassava in Nigeria is grown by smallholder farmers for domestic consumption. Yields are extremely low compared to countries like Thailand and Brazil – and could easily be doubled.

Adesina’s investment advisor Ada Osakwe traveled with a ministry team to last month’s World Economic Forum for Africa in Cape Town to meet with private sector participants. She said that despite growing the world’s largest cassava crop, Nigeria accounts for only 10 percent of global trade value. Much of the harvest spoils for lack of preservation and storage facilities, she said, or because there is no market for farmers to sell their surplus.

With a background in private equity on three continents, she says she is inspired by the challenge of adding value to a crop Nigeria is so capable of producing. Her work with the ministry is supported by the Tony Elumelu Foundation, which espouses ‘Africapitalism’ as a tool of development.

Osakwe promotes agriculture as a business – one that can be profitable both for farmers and for those who provide capital to process and distribute farm products. Among the mechanisms is a plan to establish ‘Staple Crop Processing Zones’ (SCPZ), designed to concentrate infrastructure within designated areas, to enable economies of scale for processing and manufacturing activities.

Food not fuel

“My vision is that agriculture will be our oil,” says Captain Idris Wada, a former airline pilot and governor of Kogi state. Kogi has the highest yield of cassava per hectare, and the governor joined the agriculture ministry delegation to the World Economic Forum to encourage investment in the state’s SCPZ.

In an interview in Abuja, he said the scheme will create jobs. “Cassava is a source of starch and a source of sweeteners,” he said. “Right now Nigeria imports 95 percent of its starch requirements and 100 percent of the sweeteners we need in industries. Within two or three years, we should be able to substitute that 100 percent.”

Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, also went to the World Economic Forum. Interviewed, in Cape Town, she said cassava bread is an example of both the problems and the prospects for Nigerian agriculture. Any single project mirrors the complexity of the entire agriculture transformation agenda.

The finance ministry aims “to make it easier for suppliers of inputs, seeds and fertilizers to get access to finance” she said, “by developing a mechanism to absorb 70 percent of the risk of commercial banks” who lend for those purposes. And, she said, “We are working with the Central Bank to bring inflation down so that interest rates will come down. Keep in mind that in macroeconomics it is crucial to get prices right in the economy so that agriculture can prosper.”

For all the challenges, says Agriculture Minister Adesina, the transformation effort must succeed. “The pains of nation building in Nigeria,” he warned, “pale in comparison to the potential of a strong and growing Nigeria. Don’t give up on Nigeria.”

Bunmi Oloruntoba contributed to this report in Nigeria. Mantsadi Sepheka, Juanita Williams and Andre Van Wyk reported from the World Economic Forum in Cape Town.

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