Abidjan — Women farmers in Côte d'Ivoire are achieving greater autonomy and economic independence thanks to new varieties of cassava.
Cassava is an important staple food in this West African country according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, second only to yams, a similar starchy tuber.
Farmers in the southern and eastern parts of the country have taken up three high-yielding varieties of cassava, known as Bocou 1, 2 and 3, which are resistant to disease and pests, according to Boni N'zué, the coordinator of the Cassava Project, an initiative launched in 2008 by the country's National Centre for Agricultural Research.
"They can produce 32 to 34 tonnes per hectare per year, compared to five tonnes per hectare from traditional cassava varieties," he told IPS.
Eight years ago, when her family's 10 hectare landholding in the southern village of Dabou was divided up, Henriette Adou was allocated a one-hectare plot. The 35-year-old farmer began cultivating it, but when her efforts in the 2007-2008 season produced a harvest of less than three tonnes, she gave up farming for a year.
"But friends advised me to switch to the new cassava varieties and I tried them out in 2009-2010. The results have been even better than I hoped," Adou told IPS.
Her 2010 harvest of the Bocou 1 variety amounted to 33 tonnes. In 2011 she planted both Bocou 1 and 2 and harvested more than 65 tonnes. With cassava selling for around 48 dollars per tonne, her income came to 3,000 dollars last year.
Now Adou is thinking about expanding her field. "I asked my brothers to let me farm another hectare, but only one of them agreed. The others refused, saying that I'm not entitled to any more than what I got when the land was divided up," she said.
Before leaving for the fields, Adou told IPS she had put money aside for a house which she hopes to finish building after the sale of her harvest next year. "I'm putting it up at my own pace because I've become the head of the family," she said with a smile.
Her ambitions go beyond simply selling more cassava. Adou wants to set up an operation to process and market various cassava products, especially attiéké - a popular food in Côte d'Ivoire and neighbouring countries for which a pungent, tasty fufu is made by peeling, boiling and fermenting cassava, which is then drained, dried and steamed.
"I hope to get started processing cassava within the next two years," she told IPS.
Albertine Niamien, 37, is already further along that road. A member of the Association of Women Attiéké Producers (APAD), she also attributes her good fortune to new cassava varieties.
"It's three years now since I started planting Bocou 1 and 2. When I took over three hectares of family land, everyone supported me. We trained two teams of five - some to work on processing and others on marketing," Niamien told IPS.
She told IPS that her annual income, which ranges between 4,000 and 8,000 dollars, has allowed her to cover essential needs for the ten members of her family.
APAD has more than 150 members, according to its president, Véronique Lathe. She is in charge of raising awareness for a cooperative of women, with the aim of meeting the challenge of maintaining quality and moving towards greater industrialisation of attiéké production.
"There are more than a thousand women growing cassava and making attiéké. They need to join the association," Lathe said. "They will soon see that we'll achieve significant sales which will allow us to be independent."
At Abengourou, in the east of the country, Florence N'dri, 40, and Cécile Adjoua, 41, are among the 3,000 growers of the new cassava varieties, who sell almost all of their output to a foreign-owned business that has set up in Côte d'Ivoire.
The two women are each cultivating just half a hectare, producing a yield of around 20 tonnes. "This small harvest brought in about 400,000 CFA francs (800 dollars). It's not yet enough, but I have managed to save a bit of money," N'dri told IPS.
Three years ago, the producers in the region harvested a total of 25,000 tonnes of cassava. In 2011, their collective output was 32,000 tonnes, worth about 1.5 million dollars. Three quarters of the output was sold to the foreign business, and the rest on the local market.
"The guarantee of having a market is very motivating. Now, we're fighting so that our husbands and parents will grant us larger plots," said Adjoua, whose spouse is eyeing her land to extend his rubber plantation.