The Star (Nairobi)

2 September 2014

Kenya: In Times of Drought, Cassava Has Come to Our Rescue

Anastasia Musenya from Kanzilu village in Mutomo District, Kitui County, has been affected countless times by drought and famine, but planting cassava has been a blessing to her family during such difficult times.

"Cassava is our saviour in this hunger-stricken region since we get regular dry seasons here -- the cassava plant can withstand harsh weather and it is also nutritious," she says, as she serves her guests tea with boiled cassava.

"This is what my family feeds on, we have no other food, every time I plant maize, the crop fails due to lack of rain," Musenya says.

She is among many farmers in Mutomo who have turned to cassava farming as a result of the severe climatic conditions in the region.

A recent study found that cassava, a traditional root crop that is a staple for millions of Africans, could help farmers deal with climate change.

"People here were so used to planting maize. In the past, crops like maize have failed and many farmers in the area have turned to drought-tolerant orphaned crops such as sorghum, millet, cowpeas and cassava," says Benedict Mathitu, a divisional crops officer, Mutumo Division.

He adds that Mutomo receives an average rainfall of between 300mm and 600 mm annually, making it difficult for farmers to invest in planting crops that are not drought-tolerant.

"The last time I had a good harvest was in 2003 and since then I have never harvested any other crop apart from cassava," Musenya says.

She is a member of 'Wikwatyo wa Kandae' -- meaning 'Hope of Kandae' -- self help group which engages in cassava farming. The group gets a lot of support from the ministry of agriculture through extension services.

Joseph Musenya, one of the group members, says cassava farming has many advantages compared to other crops like maize.

"We have a serious shortage of water here in Mutomo, most of the wells are dry now, we walk for many kilometres to fetch water that is not very clean," he says.

Musenya adds that cassava is a delicacy that they can't miss in their homestead. "It has a special function of boosting men's vitality," she adds.

However, cassava farmers face a number of challenges, including diseases and pests. There is also the issue of cyanide poisoning which many farmers have no knowledge about.

Dr Cyrus Githunguri, an agronomist/crop physiologist in charge of the Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organisation (Karlo) -- formerly known as Kari Katumani -- has done several studies on cassava for more than 20 years.

He says cyanide is not a big threat to cassava consumers, adding that the human body has a natural way of fighting cyanide. He however advises people to eat well-cooked cassava.

Githinguri is urging farmers to take advantage of cassava farming to fight poverty. He adds that there is need for farmers to use improved seed varieties from Karlo, noting that these don't have disease strains and only take only eight months to one year to mature.

The common cassava diseases in the region include cassava mosaic and brown stalk which is commonly found in the coastal region of Kenya.

"People in Mutomo have depended on food relief for a long time, it is high time we found our own sustainable ways of survival," says Martha Mwangi, who works with more than 40 farmer groups in the region.

She believes that cassava farming has greatly improved the livelihoods of many families in Mutomo.

The groups she works with own a bakery which makes bread from cassava flour. Other delicacies made from cassava are cakes, chapatti, chips and crisps which are sold in the local market.

"With agriculture accounting for 29 per cent of Gross Domestic Product in developing countries and creating employment for 65 per cent of the population, communities living in Arid and semi-Arid Lands have no choice but to adopt to improve on their food security by farming the climate smart way," says Mwangi.

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