The "Golden Age" of Cassava


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The "Golden Age" of Cassava



Victor Oshisada



culled from GUARDIAN, August 17, 2005


Food! Apart from the air which man breathes in and out, food is one of the three basic necessities of life. This sounds trite. And I wince with distaste whenever I am compelled to make a much-hackneyed statement. Journalism abhors it. But, the reality of it makes the repetition inevitable. Food is essential to human existence in much the sane degree as shelter and clothing.

Evidently, it is in realisation of the importance of food that the Federal Government set up the National Special Programme on Food Security to boost agriculture. Hitherto, the stance of the country regarding agriculture was, indeed, lethal. For too long, the successive governments were blinded by the luxuries of oil which some experts predict to be exhaustible in the next 35 years. If new discoveries of oil are not feasible or alternatives are ultimately found for oil, how does the nation expect to generate revenue? Agriculture is the oldest occupation. Next to it is aquaculture. Aquaculture is the controlled cultivation and harvest of freshwater or marine aquatic species of plants and animals. Aquaculture is practised in China, India and Israel where marine fisheries abound.

Nigeria is more of an agricultural country than aquacultural. There is in abundance wide expanse of lands, in spite of which food is scarce. Why? The greater part of the lives of most persons is still lived within traditional structures. Our farmers are illiterates using crude tools for subsistence agriculture. These are the prevailing conditions under which cassava is planted in Nigeria, and processed as gari.

I want my reader to have a glimpse into the history of cassava. Students of African history will attest to the fact that maize, pineapples, sweet potatoes, pawpaws and guavas were introduced to the West African sub-region from the Americas (north and south America). Cassava followed them into West Africa at the beginning of the 17th century (that is, early 1600s), first to Angola and later to Guinea. Oranges, melons and lemons came from Portugal. Cassava and maize were special because they provided more regular and abundant supply of staple foodstuffs throughout the year. These regular supplies ensured the growth in population.

"Gari" is processed from cassava. So cassava/gari has entered its golden age in Nigeria. It is predominantly the staple food of the populace. Today, massive export of the commodity is encouraged by the Federal Government. World Food Programme was set up by the United Nations to buy foods, including cassava gari from African countries to send to Darfur in Sudan, and other crisis-torn countries of the world. The subsistence root-crop, cassava, which takes nine to 12 months to mature, is in hot demand abroad. Only recently, Chief Richard Egenti, the president of the Nigerian-Polish Business Council revealed that the business community in Poland expressed interest in Nigeria's cassava. Polish business people have been making sustained enquiries upon cassava industry in Nigeria. In my opinion, can it really be described as an industry when the production is merely on subsistence or consumption level?

I think it is when cassava is produced at commercial scale under mechanised system that it can rightly be described as an industry. The interests of the Poles are two-folds. First, they like to import cassava from Nigeria. Second, they are keen in helping to further develop it as an industry. "They are prepared to help in establishing medium and large-scale cassava farms as well as funding research into cassava production", Chief Egenti explained. But how prepared are we in these respects? It is true that the initiative of exporting cassava is the singular effort of President Olusegun Obasanjo to harness the potential of the crop. Nonetheless, in view of his limited tenure in office as the President, how are we sure that after 2007, the initiative of setting up the National Special Programme on Food Security to boost agriculture shall not suffer defeat in the hands of an incoming administration? The policy of discontinuity has become successive Nigerian governments' culture. Once a government relinquishes power, its well-thought out initiatives become moribund.

With a 33 million metric tonnes yearly out-put, Nigeria is rated the world's largest primary producer of cassava. It is also adjudged the world's largest consumer of the product in the forms of gari for eba, cassava flour (elubo) for amala and fufu. Besides Poland, China is another country that is frantically seeking the importation of the product. At the moment, China is yet to make any survey about investing in cassava in the country. Once they do so, the reverse in the present trend of demands for the product from Nigeria may result, although employment will be created for the jobless youths. But we must remember that better quality may result and, at the same time a glut may as well be created, because in China cassava is used to manufacture starch only, and not for consumption as we do in Nigeria. It is, however, possible that in the far-off future, cassava may be refined to become China's staple food. Further, in some Asian countries cassava is available.

Indeed, it was formerly imported from there to China before Nigeria's source was discovered. What, if other countries are discovered in the future by China or Poland as the cheaper sources to sustain their economies? Consequently, the revenue on cassava exportation may dwindle. In China, there are four seasons as against Nigeria's two seasons? Is it not possible that China may carry out research to develop appropriate quality species in the four seasons? Will China continue to rely on importation from Nigeria? My apprehension is informed by the presence of 300 agricultural Chinese experts in all the 36 states of Nigeria. The experts are said to be making researches.

Care must be exercised on our part to have foresight lest China steals the show by becoming the world's largest producer, bearing in mind that in Southern China (that is Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam) cassava is available and consumed. The factor of proximity may count against us in the future. My reader must remember the present position of Malaysia which used to import palm products from us, but is today a frontline producer of palm products. We must not be so complacent to gloat in the fact that cassava shall continue to be in hot demand perpetually. In 2004, 30 metric tonnes of cassava were imported by China, and there is need for more there. Will the trend continue unabated?

And if it continues, how do we cope with the on-going scarcity of the product in the country? Apart from the scarcity arising from export to China or Poland, Federal Government has directed bakers and other confectionery makers to include 10 per cent cassava flour in the production of bread and other allied goods. This is a good sign of economic growth as the directive creates market opportunities for it locally and abroad. Moreover, scientists, at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, Oyo State, are currently making cassava revolution by researching on the product for quality varieties and high yieldings. Today, cassava is used for biscuits, animal feeds, paints, ply-wood and glue. All these are worthy initiatives to boost the value of cassava.

The questions arise. How do the masses cope with the on-going scarcity of food, especially cassava? How can the research efforts of the IITA permeate through to the local farmers for applications? Food prices are daily becoming prohibitive. For instance a big bag of gari which was formerly sold for between N2,000/N2,800 is now N5,000. Rice was N2,000 per bag before, but it is now N7,000. Importation is banned. I believe that the ideal step by the Federal Government must be that it ensures that rice is locally produced in commercial quantities before embarking on import-ban. It must not ban before large-scale production, otherwise, only the rich will survive in a country of many poor. All those television shows of rice productions are deceptive. The reality is not so.

What are the ways out of hunger? First, ban on the importation of food items, particularly rice, must be lifted. Its local production must be expedited. The Federal Government must heed the recommendation of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) that 25 per cent of its budget must be channelled toward the development of agriculture. As at now, only two per cent of 2005 budget is directed to that sector. Further, the government must look into the National Special Programme on Food Security which is under-funded.

The first phase of the project is supposed to end in December 2005, but there is nothing concrete as yet achieved. Finally, the Federal Government must look earnestly into the problems of agriculture which are climate change, small-scale farming, dependence of farming upon direct rainfall, recurrent droughts and floods, political conflicts, traditional system of farming, illiteracy and lack of storage facilities. These may not be achieved in one day, but a journey of a million miles starts with one step.

*Oshisada, a veteran journalist, lives in Ikorodu, Lagos State.



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