Malawi: Cassava farmers reap the benefits of joining a processing co-operative

| June 7, 2021

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Grace Malikebu has been growing cassava for decades on her farm in the eastern Malawi city of Naisi. Until recently, she had always sold raw cassava and made little from it. Then, Mrs. Malikebu and 109 other local small-scale cassava farmers formed a co-operative. The co-op processes raw cassava into starch and high quality cassava flour, which fetches better prices than raw cassava. In 2017, she harvested about 100 kilograms of cassava and made about 50,000 Malawi kwacha ($61 US). Mrs. Malikebu says, “I never knew that cassava farming was a hidden treasure.”

With a young baby strapped to her back, Grace Malikebu is busy preparing her garden to plant cassava. She has been growing cassava for decades, long before the grandchild on her back was born. The crop has seen her through hard times when others couldn’t, especially during droughts.

She says: “I am a widow and my options to choose what kind of farming to do are limited. Apart from cassava, I grow maize and potatoes. I also rear chickens, but cassava is the crop that has changed my life.”

Mrs. Malikebu lives in Naisi, in Malawi’s eastern city of Zomba. She is now making a living from cassava, but Mrs. Malikebu says her main challenge was low prices because she used to sell raw cassava as she lacked processing knowledge and skills.

She says, “I recall how during the early days of cassava farming, I would only sell raw cassava at very low prices to vendors and other women who would cook it and sell in schools.”

To deal with low prices, Mrs. Malikebu and 109 other small-scale cassava farmers in her area formed a co-operative called Chinangwa, Mbatata, Roots and Tubers Enterprises. The co-operative processes raw cassava into starch and high quality cassava flour, also known as HQCF, which fetches better prices than raw cassava.

She explains: “We sell starch and HQCF to different food manufacturing industries, a thing I could not achieve alone as a small-scale farmer. The co-operative has brought numerous benefits and I now make profits from cassava farming, unlike before.”

In 2017, she harvested around 100 kilograms of cassava and made about 50,000 Malawi Kwacha ($62 US) Mrs. Malikebu adds, “I never knew that cassava farming was a hidden treasure.”

Daniel Sandifolo is the manager of the co-operative and oversees selling starch and HQCF to manufacturing industries, mostly those that produce tomato sauce and chili sauce. He explains: “Before forming a co-operative, the farmers were growing and selling raw cassava as individuals. It was very difficult for them to find markets because of the small quantities. And as a result, buyers were buying them at lower prices than now.”

But challenges persist in cassava farming. According to Mrs. Malikebu, during the planting season, farmers struggle to find good quality planting materials. She adds, “It’s also difficult to get varieties that mature fast. We rely on traditional varieties that take almost a year to mature.”

Mrs. Malikebu says that most cassava varieties are also susceptible to disease. To deal with this challenge, farmers uproot infected plants to separate them from healthy ones. She says, “When cassava plants are attacked, we remove all the stems that have been affected and burn them.”

The co-operative is helping its members address the challenge of poor planting materials. Mr. Sandifolo says that the co-operative purchased land where it is multiplying improved varieties and distributing them to farmers every planting season.

Sarah Musoke is a research scientist at the Chitedze Research Station in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. She helps farmers with post-harvest handling and value addition. She has been training farmers how to use cassava and how to develop products from cassava.

Mrs. Musoke explains that one of the biggest challenges for cassava farmers is diseases such as mosaic disease and cassava brown streak, both of which are transmitted by a virus and have no effective chemical control.

She adds: “They are a big challenge because cassava is propagated using the stems, so these diseases are transmitted through the planting material and hence are difficult to control. We are trying to come up with varieties tolerant to these diseases.”

Mrs. Musoke says the problem is that many cassava farmers share planting materials and end up sharing the diseases. She notes that experts have been working hard to ensure that clean planting materials are available. She explains, “What farmers can do also is multiply and maintain clean planting materials.”

Despite these challenges, Mrs. Malikebu is now a model cassava farmer and is attracting attention from other farmers and organizations that come to learn from her.

She says: “When I lost my husband in 1998, he left me with eight children, and that was the time I started putting more effort into farming. I am happy that today, cassava farming has helped me to buy goats and additional land where I am now growing more cassava.”

This resource was supported with the aid of a grant from The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ) implementing the Green Innovation Centre project.

Photo: Women washing cassava in a basin, in Tanzania, 2014. Credit: Esther Mwangabula