Stefan Heinke and Mohamed Elsherif

Cassava – Unleashing the Potential of a Poor Man’s Crop

Cassava is one of the most important crops in Nigeria, playing a dominant role in the rural economy particularly in the southern agro-ecological zones. It represents 70% of the calorie intake of the population in the country – Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa with more than 180 million people. Nigeria’s 4.5 million farmers grow over 50% of the world’s cassava on 3.3 million hectares. Additionally, because cassava can grow all year round, smallholder farmers relay on this crop to have food to feed their families.

They eat it daily at breakfast, lunch and dinners; families not only eat the tuber but sometimes the leaves too, which they boil. If the families don’t eat the leaves, they use them as fodder for animals. Cassava has many advantages. From a nutrition perspective it is rich in carbohydrates, calcium, and vitamins C and D. From an agronomic point of view, since it does not need a lot of care, it is easy to cultivate, can grow on very poor soil conditions and does not need special irrigation or fertilization. All this has made cassava a typical smallholder’s crop.

However, the average national fresh root yield of around 12.5 tons per hectare is among the lowest in the world and half of the yield realized in the research stations. The major factor affecting the yield of cassava in Nigeria is poor weed management. Other major contributing factors are inadequate field preparation and poor agronomic practices. Fields are mostly cultivated with hand hoes, which is very labor intensive and expensive. Women contribute more than 90% of the hand-weeding labor and it is estimated that about 69% of farm children between the ages of 5-14 are forced to leave school to help weeding cassava.

Stefan Heinke, Sr. Sustainable Development Manager, Bayer
Stefan Heinke, Sr. Sustainable Development Manager, Bayer
Stefan Heinke,
Sr. Sustainable Development Manager, Bayer

Currently, to save the cassava yields and to prevent the families from economic losses, traditional manual weeding consumes 50-80% – or between 300-500 hours – of the total labor of the growers. Therefore, unless we find innovative weed control solutions, farming families in Nigeria are at risk and might not be able to get out of their subsistence farming situation.

Almost 5 years ago, Bayer – among other private sector companies and research institutes – was invited to participate in a conference to discuss ways to improve weed management in cassava. Cassava is a non-commercial crop and as a consequence there was not much research particularly around weed management. However, we know that weeds can destroy up to a hundred percent of the cassava yield. At the 2013 conference, research cooperation under the Leadership International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was kicked off.

The objective was to increase the productivity of cassava while minimizing the drudgery of hand weeding by women and children. Together, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Nigerian research institutes, universities and registration authorities and Bayer began researching ways to improve cassava varieties with proper planting dates, plant population and plant nutrition programs. We also looked at inter-cropping, tillage and integrated weed management practices - including the use of herbicides that meet globally accepted conventions and safety thresholds appropriate for smallholder farmers.

Mohamed Elsherif, Agronomic Product Development Manager & Technical Advisor Africa & Middle East, Bayer
Mohamed Elsherif, Agronomic Product Development Manager & Technical Advisor Africa & Middle East, Bayer
Mohamed Elsherif,
Agronomic Product Development Manager & Technical Advisor Africa & Middle East, Bayer

As part of this cooperation we have also trained farmers and technical managers in the safe use and efficient application of products. In the last two years, more than 150 people – including extension and spray service providers – participated in classroom and field trainings to improve their skills and helped to disseminate their knowledge to other farmers.

Since the initiative started, we have observed average yields as high as 27 tons per hectare in the state of Ogun. This confirms that weeds are the major factor limiting the potential yield of cassava. Additionally, manual weeding requires hired labor, which is more expensive and less effective; we have observed that herbicide application contributes to higher income for the families.

The work done through the Cassava Weed Management Project has shown that better weed management can have a positive impact in fighting hunger and poverty in Africa, and may free women to pursue other interests and children to attend school more regularly.

Africa has seen a good share of civil wars that often destroyed harvests and left the land behind burnt. Yet while what we see of the cassava plants may have been destroyed, the tubers remained dug in the soil. They have survived all the conflicts and grown again to nourish many African families. By creating sustainable solutions and working with farmers, this nutritious food can help us make sure that millions of children will enjoy a better future. And yes, many of us will continue to enjoy its sweet taste.

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