"Golden Age" of Cassava
culled from GUARDIAN, August 17,
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
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
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.