Kenya: Re-discovering cassava during drought (IPS, Daily Nation)

| June 20, 2011

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Now that she grows cassava instead of maize, Jemima Mueni has enough food to last until the end of the year. She also has enough money to pay school fees for her children, despite the current drought. But many of her neighbours in the village of Wolile in Makueni County, eastern Kenya, are not in the same position. Some people in this semi-arid region are already relying on food relief.

The drought was declared a national disaster in June. The long rains failed in most arid and semi-arid districts, with dry spells of up to three weeks after the onset of the rains. The government expects that more than 3.5 million Kenyans will require food relief until September.

Mrs. Mueni started increasing her cassava planting in 2010 when she learned of its benefits from her self- help group. Although cassava is not new to the region, the members of the Kituluni Farmers Self Help group have re-discovered its value. She says, “We have learnt how to cook and eat both cassava leaves and tubers, make flour from dried tubers for domestic and commercial consumption, [and make] snacks and crisps from the tubers.”

Mrs. Mueni has always known that cassava is a drought-resistant crop, but never bothered to grow it. She explains, “Until three years ago it was a stigmatized crop … local residents [believed] that it is a crop for extremely poor and desperate people.” As a result, people grew no more than 10 cassava plants on their farms.

But Mrs. Mueni and her husband, Samuel Mukonza, have stopped growing maize in order to concentrate on cassava, which grows all year round. Mr. Mukonza says, “So far, we have just one acre [about half a hectare] under cassava, with 540 stems.” The couple decided to plant cassava after they failed to harvest a single grain of maize from a two hectare piece of land following a drought in 2010.

In 2006, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) launched a project to promote cassava as a food security and commercial crop. The project is called Kenya Arid and Semi Arid Land management.

John Wambua is the project’s principal investigator. He says, “We selected nine improved cassava varieties from the KARI root and tuber research program for multiplication, after which more than two million improved cassava planting materials were distributed to the farmers through commercial villages.”  “Commercial villages” is a concept initiated by the project. They are composed of several existing self-help groups whose members have expressed an interest in cassava farming.

Members are given access to processing equipment such as milling machines. The groups sell a kilogram of cassava flour for just over one dollar, and demand is growing. One self-help group operates a food kiosk at Mbuvi market in Makueni County. They sell foods made from cassava, including chapattis, ugali (a dough-like meal made with water and flour) and crisps. Some meals are served with cassava leaves. Rose Matheka is the group’s production supervisor. She says, “Selling it as ready-made food gives us three to four times more money.”

With its success in eastern Kenya, the commercialization of cassava is now being promoted in other semi-arid parts of the country.