THE escalating mealie meal prices could have a hidden solution that has not been fully explored in Zambia.
Cassava production may just be a perfect but under explored substitute for the maize meal.
Growing cassava could contribute to improved food security and nutrition and help to stabilise the escalating mealie meal prices in the country.
Cassava is the third largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics.
It is a major staple food in the developing world, providing a basic diet for around 500 million people.
Zambia can also become one of the world's largest producers of cassava like Nigeria if it takes cassava production seriously as it takes maize production.
Cassava is an important staple food crop that produces bulky storage roots with a heavy concentration of carbohydrates.
The crop is consumed by more than 30 per cent of the Zambian population and is traditionally grown mostly in the northern half of the country.
The country has in the most recent past been faced with escalating mealie-meal prices on the market with a 25 kilogramme of mealie meal being sold at around KR70.
Many people blamed it on the Government, saying it had not provided enough maize grain to the millers.
But Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Permanent Secretary Douglas Siakalima said Government was committed to supporting initiatives which were aimed at contributing to the improved food security and nutrition.
Mr Siakalima says promoting cassava growing in the country could help to stabilise the escalating of mealie meal prizes as cassava had many advantages when compared with maize both from the agronomic perspective as well as its multiple economic uses.
He says cassava is relatively more drought tolerant than maize saying cassava has more advantages as it could be eaten not only as floor to make nshima but also as fuel wood or building materials.
"cassava is relatively more drought tolerant than maize, if cassava growing is promoted in the country, it would help to improve food security and nutrition and also help to stabilise the escalating mealie meal prices," Mr Siyakalima said.
The importance of cassava cannot be overemphasised as it acts as a staple food crop as well as a potential commercial crop.
Growing Cassava has many advantages when compared with maize as it required little or no fertiliser to grow while maize required purchased inputs such as seed and fertiliser.
Cassava is cheaper to grow as it is drought tolerant and required no fertiliser to grow successfully hence it reduced the cost of production.
The innovation packaging maize and cassava meal in one 25 kilogramme bag that Programme Against Malnutrition (PAM) and other partners want to introduce is a commendable approach.
This move would enhance cassava production among the farmers as well as the growers.
However PAM should ensure that it is within the stipulated health standards and meet Zambia Bureau of Standards (ZABS) specification for food products so that there could be increased and sustained demand.
This innovation would enhance market access for cassava farmers and increased utilisation and consumption in the country.
According to PAM, cassava is now increasingly recognised as an important staple food in Zambia, with more than 562,200 cassava growers.
However, there is need for concerted efforts from stakeholders to facilitate cassava commercialisation and help improve the nutritional status and livelihoods of small scale farmers.
PAM acting executive director Maureen Chitundu says although a lot of efforts have been made to try and increase productivity and marketing of cassava from Government and cooperating partners, there was still need for more innovation to stimulate real growth in the subsector.
Ms Chitundu says without enhanced value addition and regular market, real benefits of the subsector would continue to elude farmers especially the women.
"We are convinced that cassava can help to stabilise the escalating mealie meal prices, the country is blessed with good weather and cannot continue to almost solely depend on one staple crop maize because in the event of army worms, drought the country would be thrown into a crisis," she says.
She says to move forward, the consortium through Tute milling would produce a Twin Pack brand of mealie meal to be sold in various retail outlets.
"A 25 kilogramme of maize will now carry 20 kilogramme of maize meal and five kilogram of cassava flour and this will help households to regularly blend nshima when cooking, therefore one of our tasks is to demonstrate blended nshima preparation in a few selected schools," she said.
The production of a Twin Pack brand by Tute milling would help to promote the preparation of blended nshima in households and in schools.
ZABS public relations officer Dingase Makumba says the institution through its testing laboratories will provide facilities for the examination and testing of the commodities to which standards apply.
Ms Makumba said the move would ensure that good quality and safe cassava products including flour are produced and consumed.
Its wide harvesting window allowed it to act as a famine reserve and is invaluable in managing labor schedules.
It also serves poor farmers in two ways as either subsistence or a cash crop.
However certain cassava varieties especially the bitter roots maybe toxic due to the presence of cyanide hence the need for standards against which the safety levels maybe checked.
It must be properly prepared before consumption as improper preparation of cassava could leave enough residual cyanide to cause acute cyanide intoxication and goiters, and may even cause ataxia or partial paralysis.
Nevertheless, farmers often prefer the bitter varieties because they deter pests, animals, and thieves.
Cassava production must be promoted as it is cheaper.
The Government and farmers should engage in cassava production so as to help reduce the demand of maize meal thereby reducing the mealie meal prices.