Tanzania: From crisis to opportunity with cassava (by Farm Radio Weekly in Tanzania)

| April 2, 2012

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Mary Mtoi smiles as she talks about her farm in Tongwe, a village in eastern Tanzania. Mrs. Mtoi has two hectares of cassava, and also grows black pepper, cardamom and oranges. She has been growing cassava for twenty years. In 2000, cassava brown streak disease wiped out all the cassava in her village. But now she and the members of the village farmers’ group are prospering.  She says, “I used to grow just to feed my family. But now I grow to sell.”

In 1997, an agricultural extension worker advised the villagers to form a group so they could receive help from the government or NGOs.  Mrs. Mtoi needed money to pay school fees and buy things for her house. She realized that joining a farmers’ group would improve her living standards.

For three years, the group learned about processing as part of the government’s root and tuber project. Then in 2000, cassava brown streak disease appeared in the fields. All the cassava in the village was affected, and the farmers had to abandon that year’s crop. They had to give up local varieties which were affected by the disease.

Soon afterwards, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security distributed a new variety of cassava, called Kiroba, which is tolerant of cassava brown streak disease. Kiroba thrived under good growing conditions and Mrs. Mtoi’s expertise. It grew so well that, very soon, there was so much cassava in the village that it was going to waste.

Researchers at Sokoine University heard about the success of the new variety. They offered to donate a cassava grater and a chipping machine to the farmers’ group. The group arranged the water supply, and constructed the building that houses the machines. The university provided training on cassava processing and marketing.

Now, the farmers group has 25 members. Anyone from the village can sell cassava to the group. The group members take care of processing − peeling, grating and drying the cassava. Four kilograms of fresh cassava make one kilogram of flour, which sells for 500 shillings or 30 U.S. cents in the village. Outside of the village, it fetches 1000 shillings or more. Everyone in the village now grows the Kiroba variety.

Mrs. Mtoi says she has benefited from being in the group. “I used to live in a thatched house. Now I have progressed and I have built a house with iron roofing. I have an oven for making bread, and I can pay school fees.”

In 2009, the group was contacted by a project called “Unleashing the power of cassava in Africa,” operated by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, or IITA. Project staff had heard of the success of the group’s processing business, and wanted to buy planting material from the village to distribute to other farmers.

John Msemo is Senior Agricultural Research Officer at Kibaha Agricultural Research Institute. He used to work with the IITA project and Mrs. Mtoi’s group. He explains that after receiving various trainings, Mrs. Mtoi’s group decided to produce cassava planting material. They now set aside one field just for growing  planting material. The group is contracted to sell this material for the whole of Tanzania’s eastern region, as there is high demand for clean planting material.

Mr. Msemo says, “The planting material can only be sold after it has been inspected by us. There must be a gap of 200 metres between the cassava field and other cassava crops.” Twenty-five pieces sell for 3000 shillings, a little less than $2 U.S. Last year, the group sold 500,000 shillings or more than $300 US worth of planting material. Mr. Msemo says the group works well together and is very unified. Farmer groups from other districts now visit the village to learn how to produce clean planting material.

According to Mrs. Mtoi, it is a hard-working group. She says this is why they have been successful. But she also says they benefitted from having a committed extension officer and linking up with external institutions.