Tanzania: Learning from the legacy of cassava mosaic disease

| March 27, 2017

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After 40 years of growing cassava, Rajabu Ritaku will never forget the disease that forced some farmers to consider abandoning cassava farming.

Mr. Ritaku has lived in Mlandizi township in Tanzania’s Coast Region—an area where cassava flourishes—his entire life. Cassava, called muhogo in Swahili, is a staple food for the 1.1 million people living in the region. But since the mid-1990s, cassava farmers in this area have been troubled by a pervasive disease that completely destroyed the tubers: cassava mosaic disease.

Mr. Ritaku says that the disease was particularly challenging because farmers didn’t know what was killing their plants. He says, “At first I blamed harvesting delays. Sometimes I thought my plants had been jujued,” or cursed by magic.

He adds: “We thought the blame lies on the long drought, harvesting delays, or effects of climatic changes on the soil. We thought that the changing weather was warming the soil and had brought some chemicals or parasites that kill the cassava.”

Farmers’ crops and livelihoods suffered because they lacked information, information that wasn’t available until they attended training programs a year after the disease destroyed their cassava fields. Mr. Ritaku is now a member of the Mshikamano Farmers’ Group, one of the groups that operates a cassava demonstration plot about 80 kilometres from Dar es Salaam.

Halima Kitunda chairs another farmers group, Umoja, which works on a cassava demonstration farm in Mlandizi township. She says that they were finally given information about what was killing their cassava. But, she says, “When we heard from other cultivators that cassava mosaic disease was a severe cassava-killing disease, we were not told how to deal with it.”

The farmers didn’t know how to identify infected cassava or how to stop the spread of the disease. This caused clashes between cultivators and cassava traders. Many farmers sold the harvest from an entire field to traders, who had their own harvesting programs. Many traders were not aware of cassava mosaic disease until they harvested and saw the rotting tubers. They were shocked to see roots decaying, a bad stench, and flies gathering. They couldn’t sell the infected product.

Mrs. Kitunda says she suffered severe economic losses, as did many other farmers. But she was quickly supported by another farmer, Mwanahamis Kidamane. The two farmers used his harvest as food for their families and to provide a small income which paid for school materials and medication.

Farmers in the Coast Region received information on cassava mosaic disease in the 2000s, but the disease had been in Tanzania for years before. Filbert Nyinondi is the national coordinator for the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology. He explains that training only started after there were alarming food shortages.

He says: “The severity of the problem was extremely bad [and] hence required serious interventions, because the [the conditions in the] cassava belt along the coast as well as around the Lake Victoria Basin were hideous and [they] had alarming food shortages.”

Neema Sonje is the extension officer who supervises and trains the Mshikamano and Umoja cassava farmers. Farmers receive text messages with information on how to address diseases, as well as other good practices for growing cassava.

Today, farmers are winning the battle against cassava mosaic disease. They are using better quality seeds and they plant their new crops a good distance from infected fields. And they hope that they never experience such an outbreak again.

This story was created with the support of CABI Plantwise through Farm Radio Trust.