cassava is reviving a new staple that can weather the region’s
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
“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
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
“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
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
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