It had not rained for months in Southern Africa four years ago and the fields of maize outside of Lusaka, Zambia, stood wilted and gray, a total loss. But despite one of the most severe droughts on record, Melania Chipungu's cassava fields remained vibrant green, swaying in the breeze.
"I used to grow maize, but it was difficult and I would lose my crop whenever the rain was poor. But I don't worry about the drought since I turned to cassava," Mrs. Chipungu told Africa Renewal. "Cassava is easier to grow. All I do is keep the weeds out - no fertilizers, no long hours of hard work. I have more time to meet with other women and do things that I enjoy."
Cassava's tuber roots, which look similar to a sweet potato, are rich in carbohydrates. The leaves provide about the same amount of protein as an egg. The crop can be turned into high-quality starch, flour and animal feed. It is also used to make paper and gum. Impressed by cassava's many advantages, Mrs. Chipungu and about twenty other female farmers formed the Mitengo Women's Association to help each other grow the crop. Experts from the Zambian Ministry of Agriculture trained them in how to best grow the plant, said Mrs. Chipungu, who is chair of the association.
No longer ignored
"Many African farmers have ignored cassava in favour of maize. But cassava is now increasingly finding its way into the diets of many Africans," says Richard Mkandawire, who heads the agriculture programme of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). He notes that in the face of chronic food shortages, governments are increasingly turning to food crops like cassava that are cheaper, hardier and easier to grow.
NEPAD, an African-owned vision and strategic framework adopted by African leaders in 2001 to revive development throughout the continent, is promoting the shift to cassava. Recognizing that small farmers are the key to feeding poor families, NEPAD is encouraging farmers to grow cassava as part of an overall strategy to ensure a reliable supply of food.
"Cassava is the only food staple that farmers can harvest early in the rainy season, when hunger is most acute. Maize stocks usually run out at the end of the year before the new crop is ready for harvest," the Zambia-based Dr. Haggblade says.
Cassava is the crop of choice, he says, because "in a normal year, a farmer gets about only 2 tonnes of maize per hectare. Cassava will yield three times as much food."
In a bid to increase the number of cassava growers, African leaders are working with scientists to provide farmers with high-quality seeds and information on the best methods for planting and growing cassava. NEPAD officials are now working with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) to improve cassava so it can yield more, mature faster and resist diseases better. The institute, based in Ibadan, Nigeria, says it has developed a variety that can be harvested within 12 to 24 months and provide yields of more than 40 tonnes per hectare.
Mrs. Chipungu has noticed the difference. "My life improved after I began growing cassava. The new improved varieties, Tanganyika and Mwelu, mature within a year. They also give us big healthy tubers that fight disease better than the old plants," she said.
A sound crop is just the beginning. One of NEPAD's major goals is to help farmers grow enough that they can sell cassava as well as feed their families. Nigeria, the world's leading cassava producer according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is encouraging its farmers to grow cassava. The Nigerian government estimates that cassava could earn up to $5 bn, about one-third of the income it receives from the sale of crude oil.
'I have money in my pocket'
From their 20-30 acre plots, the women of the Mitengo association hope to export cassava to neighbouring countries. To do this, they will need assistance to buy processing and packaging machines to produce quality goods that can compete on an international market. Many of the women are responsible for supporting themselves.
"We are saying to women, it doesn't matter if you are alone or married, you have to use your hands to survive. My husband is dead and I have eight children, so I can't give up," Mrs. Chipungu said. "Since I turned to cassava, I have money in my pocket. I can buy seeds to grow cabbages and tomatoes to feed my family. With support, many more women can become independent."
In this campaign for cassava growing, experts from NEPAD and FAO are helping to spread IITA's improved plants to more than a dozen countries. Although cassava is not a silver bullet and it will not be able to remedy all of Africa's food shortages, given the means, cassava farmers will be able to produce food for hungry people across Africa.