Conakry — Rice remains the most popular staple in Guinea, but the high price of imported rice is pushing many consumers in this West African country to change their diet. Farmers have responded by rapidly expanding the land area planted with an alternative food crop: cassava.
According to statistics from the country's National Agency for Food Security (SNSA), the cultivated area more than doubled, from 58,424 hectares in 2004 to 122,550 hectares in 2011. Some 775,500 tonnes of the crop was harvested last year as it became the second most commonly eaten food in the country.
Guinea produces only limited quantities of rice domestically, and imports 200 to 300 thousand tonnes of rice from Asia each year to meet the needs of its 10.6 million-strong population, according to the ministry of agriculture. The rising cost of these imports in recent years has pushed strong growth in demand for cassava as an affordable alternative.
"Cassava is truly a vital crop for food security because it provides both its leaves and a starchy tuber to low-income consumers," explained Kandia Traoré, an agricultural advisor, who also pointed out to IPS that cassava leaves are rich in vitamins A and C.
El-Sanoussy Bah, head of the cassava programme at the Guinean Institute for Agronomic Research, welcomes increased interest in the improved varieties of the crop his institute provides to smallholder farmers.
"Cassava is both a staple and an accompaniment for our people. It is also a source of income for farmers," he told IPS.
Roughly 10 percent of the country's cassava crop - 73,000 tonnes - is harvested in the Kouroussa prefecture. At the beginning of October, IPS visited farmer Mamadi Condé on his family plot in the Babila district. The 54-year-old is growing cassava on one hectare.
"I harvested nearly six tonnes of cassava last August," Condé said. He told IPS that his family ate some of the crop and sold the rest, earning the equivalent of 700 dollars to cover household needs.
"The cassava trade is flourishing in this region," Makoura Camara, a cassava vendor in the Kouroussa market, told IPS," and we created a cooperative in 2010 to sell our produce in Conakry, the capital, to benefit even more."
But she complained about the dilapidated state of the roads which isolate many villages with strong agricultural potential. This isolation makes processing and preserving the crop essential.
On Condé's farm, freshly harvested cassava is peeled, then soaked in water for at least 24 hours before being dried in the sun for several days. This traditional method of processing allows the cassava to be stored for nearly a year without spoilage.
The cassava can then be further processed before reaching consumers - for example, by pounding dried slices into a fine flour used to make "too", a cassava fufu commonly served with a sauce made of okra. Kouroussa farmers have also begun making attiéké, a pungent, tasty dish with origins in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire made by peeling, boiling and fermenting cassava.
"We are using manual methods to process dried cassava tubers into flour," said Saran Camara, one of Condé's two wives, whose only tools are an old mortar and pestles.
Condé and his fellow farmers dream of having a factory to process cassava like the one that once operated in the region, at Faranah. According to officials at the Programme to Support Food Security (PASAL), from 1978 and 1984, this industrial unit processed up to 50 tonnes of fresh cassava per day, producing six to 10 tonnes of gari - a coarse, lightly fermented cassava.
But, they say, the factory failed because its promoters didn't understand their market. At the time, gari was an unfamiliar food to most Guinean households, and there was no demand.
"Guineans would benefit if investors or donors financed a project for industrial processing of cassava in the region. A factory could contribute to creating added-value and strengthening food security," Karamo Sidibé, from the Sabougnouma association in Kouroussa, told IPS.