It is six o’clock in the morning and Jean Marie Tsimi is already drenched in sweat. He is harvesting cassava on his farm in the village of Okola, just outside of Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital. His field is one hectare, but today he’s harvesting only a small area. Using a machete, he gently digs in the ground. Then he grabs a stem with both hands and pulls hard. His face erupts with a smile when a large tuber emerges. He says: “For three years, I’ve been using a new local variety of cassava called Abeng-Ngon and I’m always happy when I see large cassava tubers coming from my field.”
Mr. Tsimi is one of the many farmers who plant new cassava varieties developed by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, or IITA. He used to plant a traditional variety. For each new crop, he used cuttings from previous harvests. “But,” he explains, “over the years, the harvest was not very abundant and the cassava tubers were very thin. That’s why I wanted to try something else.”
Mr. Tsimi wanted a larger cassava harvest so that he could sell some of the tubers and process the rest into cassava flour. He uses the flour to make local foods such as cassava couscous, tapioca, and cassava stick, a kind of fermented cassava dough cooked in leaves. His family eats some of these foods and his wife sells some at the market. After attending an awareness session about the new cassava varieties, Mr. Tsimi determined that the variety called Abeng-Ngon would best suit his needs because it produces large quantities of tubers.
Rachid Hanna is the IITA representative in Cameroon. He explains that his institute developed five new varieties of cassava between 1999 and 2008. They were bred to be high-yielding, mature quickly, and resist common pests and diseases such as green mite, mosaic disease, and root rot.
The institute also tried to meet the differing needs of farmers. For example, some are looking for leaves, while others want tubers. Mr. Hanna says the new varieties respond to different needs, and each is adapted to specific ecological zones. They are also rich in the nutrients iron and zinc.
The new varieties were developed through conventional breeding methods – not through genetic modification. They were tested by farmers. Then they were distributed to farmers on a larger scale at awareness sessions. Today, thousands of farmers throughout Cameroon use the new varieties.
Among them are many villagers in Okola, such as Armand Amougou Mvogo. He says the new variety matures in 11 to 13 months. When he used traditional cassava cuttings, the growth cycle could be much longer.
Not all farmers in Okola have tried the new cassava varieties. Baudelaire Onana continues to plant traditional varieties. He says, “I still have a stock of unused cassava cuttings. I do not see the need to buy new cassava varieties, especially since I have good crops.” Mr. Onana uses fertilizers and pesticides to ensure a good harvest.
Mr. Tsimi, meanwhile, is pleased that the new varieties are resistant to common diseases and produce an abundant crop. He doesn’t know exactly how much cassava his field produces, as he harvests small areas at a time. But he knows that his income increased when he started growing Abeng-Ngon. After only two seasons of growing the new variety, Mr. Tsimi was able to progress from renting land to purchasing his own field.