Congo: Farmers in Kifouma rely on bitter cassava for improved production

July 30, 2018
A translation for this article is available in French

It is very cold, but Hermann Ntsassa braves the morning chill to visit his cassava field in Kifouma, a small village in the department of Niari, on the border of the Congo and Angola. The path is straight and, from time to time, he flattens the tall, wet grasses with his bare hands as he walks.

A heavy fog covers the sky; the 23-year-old farmer knows the rainy season will begin soon.

At the field, Mr. Ntsassa collects several scattered tubers and adds them to a pile. He and his sister then begin to peel the tubers. When they complete the first pile, they harvest more, and begin peeling the cassava that will be transformed into foufou.

In Congo, foufou is cassava flour mixed with water, then boiled and eaten with sauce. Once the tubers are unearthed, cleaned, and peeled, they are cut into pieces and placed in a bag, which is then immersed in water up to four days. After removing and washing the roots, they are dried in the sun until hard. Then they are ready to be sold and milled into flour.

Twenty years ago, the community decided to abandon growing sweet cassava. They switched to a bitter variety called Mandombé. Mr. Ntsassa says this variety has many advantages: “We have found that the bitter cuttings are more profitable because the cuttings produce more. This allows us to make more foufou and thus to earn more money to improve our livelihoods.”

Mr. Ntsassa says that Mandombé is just as easy to peel as sweet varieties because it makes bigger tubers, which saves time when peeling.

He produces 25 to 30 bags of foufou flour each year, and sells them for 17,000 to 20,000 CFA francs ($10.50 to $12.40 US) per bag, for an annual income of about 600,000 francs ($370 US).

Pauline Bayekoula is a 50-year-old farmer who grows cassava on a small, 100-square-metre plot of land. The farmer is so excited to share her praise for the Mandombé variety that she nearly collides with a tree trunk that separates her field from Mr. Ntsassa’s field.

She enthuses: “The choice of the Mandombé variety is a godsend for us. I have a total of three fields and I don’t lack anything. I pay for the schooling of my two children who are at university and for the four others who are in high school and college just from the sale of Mandombé. I earn money in no time.”

Mandombé matures in just six months. By the seventh, it is ready to be harvested for foufou flour, which is in high demand in the market. The sweet cassava variety previously grown in the community takes 12 months to mature.

When Mrs. Bayekoula grew sweet cassava, production was low and provided just enough to feed her family. She says: “The sweet variety didn’t produce a lot, and to get five bags I must really work hard and harvest many tubers.… The work is hard. With five bags, the income was very insignificant.”

But this year, her production more than doubled and her revenue increased.

Fulbert N’Senda is a local extension agent and head of services for the cattle sharecropper project with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock in the Congo. He says: “Cyanide, a poison in the Mandombé, allows it to repel any attack from pests. This variety is [also] more resistant to diseases and produces more. A stem of Mandombé can produce up to six big tubers.”

Farmers begin land preparation in June. Mr. Ntsassa says: “I prepare the land by uprooting plants, and then I turn the soil again while incorporating Lantana camara leaves [into the soil]. And then I wait until October or November when the rains are heavy to plant my cuttings.”

This three- or four-month wait allows Lantana camara to decompose in the soil and nourish the earth. According to Mr. N’senda: “Lantana camara, a perennial plant whose leaves are buried in the soil before planting, comes in various varieties. Underground, they degrade and contribute to fertile soil which is better for the bitter variety of cassava [that is] prized by the farmers in Kifouma.”

Mr. Ntsassa has one important planting technique: spacing. He says: “I respect the distance of one metre [between plants] along the line [row] and one metre between lines, and the cuttings should be at least 15 to 20 centimetres [apart] with six nodes, like I heard on the radio.”