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Finding ‘Gold dust’
in Kenya’s arid soil


Drought-resistant cassava is reviving a new staple that can weather the region’s dry seasons.

62-year-old farmer David Muoka is a convert to the benefits of growing cassava — a crop that fell out of favor with Kenyans after the British introduced maize farming in the 1950s along with the idea that corn represented ‘civilized living.’

“Cassava is in our culture, but people started to see it as a poor man’s crop and so they replaced it with maize,” says Muoka. “But today our maize harvest is failing due to the lack of rain, while our cassava crop is flourishing.”

As the Kenyan Red Cross (KRC) scales up its food security programmes over the next four years, cassava is now seen as a key cash crop. Farmers in the Yatta district in south-eastern Kenya, one of the priority areas for KRC food security projects, are heavily reliant on rain-fed agriculture. Thus the farmers have struggled to deal with the impact of climate change and the district has long been a beneficiary of humanitarian relief.

After years of providing food aid to the community following recurrent crop failure, the KRC teamed up with the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), one of the largest research centers in Africa, to help farmers diversify their livelihoods away from water-hungry crops like maize and beans, toward a new variety of drought-resistant cassava. 

“It is a climate-smart food security project where farmers benefit directly from scientific research straight out of the laboratory,” says Joe Mbalu, coordinator of the KRC’s local Machakos branch. 

But the project hasn’t been without its challenges. Some farmers were given the certified seeds by KARI in 2010. But because many were unsure how to plant them, they dried them and used them for firewood. After the KRC joined the scheme in October 2011, the National Society embarked on an awareness raising campaign explaining the benefits of cassava to the farmers.

In November 2011, roughly 3,400 farmers were given 1,000 seedlings each, at a subsidized price of 50 cents (rather than the normal price of 10 Kenyan Schillings) as a result of a deal with KARI and the biotechnology company, Monsanto. At that time, 40 per cent of the seeds were lost as they dried out before some of the farmers could plant them. The rains that had been expected to last a month only came for two weeks.

“Even if we get no more rain before November the farmers will get a crop as it is resistant to the harsh climate,” says Steven Nthuli, KRC’s manager of the cassava project. “We can then scale up to 7,000 farmers who will receive seeds from the existing farmers.”

Poor man’s crop

Although farmers were initially skeptical about growing the ‘poor man’s crop’ the project took off once they hit upon the idea of processing the cassava. 
“Cassava is now like gold dust for us,” says Muoka, who serves as chairman of a local farmers group. “The crop has great commercial potential not only as flour for bread and porridge but it can be turned into industrial starch and the peel can be processed by the animal feed industry.”

KARI also provided the five farmers groups involved in the project with machines to turn the cassava into flour. Titus Kaluli — an early convert to the cassava business — has already begun milling and expects to earn more than half a million schillings from his crop in 2012 when he expands his plot from two to five acres.

“Cassava is going to give me a good living,” he says as he pulls yet another mature cassava out of the ground. “Before we relied on maize and beans but the harvest was so poor we had very little to sell.”

The Machakos Red Cross branch is already buying flour from the farmers for its recently started pizza delivery business. Pizza, along with bread, biscuits and cakes are some of the value-added products from cassava as well as the traditional staples of ugali porridge and chapatti.

Muoka, a former teacher and banker, reckons that the community is “sitting on a goldmine.” The biggest challenge will be meeting demand as the farmers have already had to turn away a leading agro-business supplier, Amiran, who wanted to place a 20,000-kilo order.  “We want to build a cassava processing plant so that we can bring employment to the district and ensure its food security,” he says.

The KRC now estimates that once 10,000 farmers are in the scheme, cassava production could be commercially viable by May 2013. But it will take 20,000 farmers and an irrigation dam serving the whole district before Yatta comes off the food beneficiary list entirely.

By Claire Doole






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