Rwanda: New cassava varieties offer hope after cassava mosaic disease ravages crop

February 20, 2017
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The bad times may have passed for Jeanette Uwababyeyi, who grows cassava in southern Rwanda’s Ruhango district. The 35-year-old walks through her field admiring the leaves of her cassava plants, which she has tended with impatience and worry. She says, “It has been three years that I haven’t been able to grow cassava here.”

Like many other farmers in the region, Mrs. Uwababyeyi’s cassava was attacked by cassava mosaic disease, which ravaged the region between 2013 and 2016. She recalls, “At first, I heard farmers in other regions shouting ‘kabore (the name for the disease) impoverishes us’ … and I thought that they had been cursed. But more and more neighbours started complaining of the same thing.”

For several years, farmers were forced to abandon cassava farming because of cassava mosaic disease, but Mrs. Uwababyeyi is now returning to cassava—with a new variety she hopes will be more successful.

Mrs. Uwababyeyi completely ignored the disease at first. But in 2013, her two hectares of cassava produced a crop not fit for eating or selling. She explains, “The tubers were rotten. To eat them, it was necessary to cut the affected part, and there was almost nothing left.”

Cassava became rare and buyers disappeared. Mrs. Uwababyeyi had earned a good income from cassava. She says, “With a good harvest, I could easily earn about 400,000 Rwandan francs [$470 US] from the sale of my tubers. But since 2013, no one came to ask if I could sell cassava.”

She could no longer support her two children. Her family was forced to get by on her husband’s monthly salary of $90 U.S. If this situation had lasted for long, her family would have faced a food crisis. So Mrs. Uwababyeyi looked for solutions.

She talked to the agricultural extension officers. She says, “They told me that I have to abandon cassava for at least three years, and grow something else on my land.”

This is a difficult decision for any farmer. But Mrs. Uwababyeyi decided to replace cassava with beans. Her neighbour, Innocent Kanamugire, did the same. Mr. Kanamugire says, “We told ourselves that the time for cassava in our area is over. The local radio stations spoke of the spread of cassava mosaic disease almost throughout the southern region of Rwanda.”

The disease also had implications for cassava processing companies, such as Kinazi Cassava Plant, a milling factory. The factory processed 60 tonnes of cassava per day before 2013, but manages far less now, operating at 20% or 30% of its normal capacity because of a lack of cassava.

Sometimes the processing plant had to travel far for cassava. Birasa Chrispin is in charge of production at Kinazi Cassava Plant. He says that they had to travel more than 300 kilometres to the east of Rwanda to find tubers.

The price of a kilogram of cassava flour increased fourfold, from 200 to 800 Rwandan francs ($0.23 to $.90 US). Buying tubers for home consumption became almost impossible. This caused a famine, which the locals named Nzaramba (I will endure).

Mrs. Uwababyeyi and other farmers are now placing their hope in two new cassava varieties from neighbouring Uganda, called NASSE 14 and NAROCASS 1. Farmers who own more than one hectare of land have already received the so-called “clean” plants from the Rwandan agricultural authority. The mayor of Ruhango district, Mbabazi Francois Xavier, says that these farmers will multiply the seedlings and then distribute them to farmers with less than one hectare of land, because the government cannot distribute the new variety to every farmer.

For best results, farmers have been advised to plant the new variety in healthy fields and not to mix them with old plants that may be contaminated with cassava mosaic disease.

After three years of growing beans instead of cassava, this year could be a bountiful one for Mrs. Uwababyeyi—which will bring her joy, as cassava is both a staple food and a good source of income in Rwanda.

This story was created with the support of CABI Plantwise through Farm Radio Trust.

Photo credit: Fulgence Niyonagize