Building a climate-smart value chain: The role of research and development

ACAI blog 1The first blog in this series described the Africa Cassava Agronomy Initiative (ACAI) and how it aims to improve cassava agronomy for increased production and productivity. The blog also talked about how ACAI partnerships could help build a climate-smart cassava value chain. This second interview blog is about the role research, development and technology in building a resilient cassava value chain. It talks about how research, and the application of improved cassava agronomic practices can help cassava farmers improve their production and productivity while adapting to climate change.

At the end of the 5-day ACAI planning meeting in Zanzibar (19 to 23 June), I had the opportunity to interview Dr Veronica NE Uzokwe – the lead scientist in charge of ACAI research activities in Tanzania.

Q: What is your specific role in the ACAI project?

“I coordinate ACAI’s research activities in Tanzania, while working closely with Agricultural Research Institutes and development partners in charge of implementing ACAI’s use cases in Tanzania. Specifically, I supervise the establishment of field trials to demonstrate the cassava-sweet potato intercropping use cases. I also help develop tools for targeting improved agronomic technologies, such as fertiliser recommendation and high starch, to different farming systems and niches for crop production.”

Q: As a scientist/agronomist, why do you think cassava is an important crop in sub-Saharan Africa?

“In sub-Saharan Africa, the climate has been unstable, and most widely consumed food crops like maize (which is the basis of most food cultures) sometimes fail to reach maturity because of drought. Thus, farmers need alternative food security crops which can withstand and adapt to the effects of climate change – also known as “climate-smart crops“.

Cassava is considered “a poor man’s crop” because it is commonly cultivated by smallholder farmers. Cassava is also still regarded as a product that is not easily commercialised – in as much as it widely consumed in Nigeria and Tanzania. Cassava has been identified by industries as a raw material, such as, starch; high quality cassava flour; snacks (for nutritional diversification); used by textile industries; pharmaceutical industries; alcoholic beverages (beer); bio fortified cassava (yellow cassava); and animal feed. However, cassava supply continually fails to match demand from these industries.

Smallholder farmers believe that cassava can perform well under minimal or low soil fertility and moisture content. This is true to a large extent, especially when compared to other crops which these farming households depend on for sustenance and trade. This means that producing cassava, in the face of climate change can help promote food security, improve livelihood and reduce poverty.

However, because cassava is mainly grown by smallholder farmers, its overall production and productivity is currently below its attainable potential. These smallholder farmers do not usually go into large scale production of cassava because when compared to other crops they grow, the income from cassava is relatively low. As a result, they only produce cassava for household consumption or as a substitute crop, rather than on a commercial scale. This means there is a yield gap in cassava production in sub-Saharan Africa which should be narrowed.”

ACAI blog 2
Photo: Dr Veronica NE Uzokwe – lead scientist in charge of ACAI research activities in Tanzania.

Q: As cassava has been identified as a climate- smart crop, how is ACAI helping to bridge this yield gap in cassava productivity?

ACAI’s major goal is to increase the production (the quantity of cassava produced irrespective of the land area) and productivity (quantity produced per unit area) of cassava. ACAI does not operate in isolation. This is why it is called a demand driven project in the sense that we work with development partners at different points of the cassava value chain to produce and put into use our agronomic technology and decision support tools to drive the demand for cassava. ACAI’s development partners including Mennonite Economic Development Associates, Cassava Adding Value for Africa, Farm Concern International, Minjingu fertilizer limited have helped identify gaps in cassava production in Tanzania.

In the ACAI project, each development partner is tasked with specific challenges towards increasing cassava productivity. For instance, the Mennonite Economic Development Associates identified that improving the variety of cassava and appropriate fertiliser recommendations could be an effective approach to increasing cassava productivity. Cassava Adding Value for Africa has identified the inadequate supply of cassava root to cassava processing factories throughout the year. Farm Concern International works with extension agents who transfer new and existing knowledge to farmers and also help to link farmers to profitable markets.

In addition, CABI, as a strategic partner will help organise cassava value chain clusters and also promote the technology developed by ACAI through various communication channels. Through research, technology and partnerships, ACAI is able to generate and disseminate appropriate technologies which can help increase cassava productivity.”

Q: What are these technologies ACAI is developing to bridge the cassava yield gap in Tanzania?

“ACAI’s technology is referred to as use-cases. Each uses-case serves as a platform to solve a particular cassava production and productivity challenge. ACAI’s six use-cases are;

  1. Fertiliser recommendation – For some time now, there has not been appropriate fertiliser recommendation for optimum cassava production. Most smallholder farmers do not use fertiliser for cassava production. Hence, they do not achieve optimum cassava productivity. Preliminary studies from a sister project (Support to Agriculture for research and development in Africa) proved that cassava responds significantly to fertiliser application in terms of increased yield. Therefore, the ACAI project is working on nutrient omission trials where we established over 300 field trials to develop site specific fertiliser recommendations. These recommendations will be scaled out to other areas where the project is not directly implemented.
  2. Fertiliser blending – A major constraint to fertiliser application in smallholder cassava farming is poor access to complete fertiliser blends. What is usually available is single fertilisers (fertiliser with single nutrients). Also, the fertiliser blends available were specifically produced for crops like vegetables and rice. Therefore, ACAI is partnering with fertiliser companies like Minjingu Fertilizer Limited to provide appropriate fertiliser recommendations (in terms of types and blends) which are best suited to cassava production.
  3. Best planting practices – Another major constraint to increasing cassava productivity is unavailability of site specific information for land preparation, planting materials as well as planting techniques. Thus, ACAI is developing recommendations for land preparation techniques; appropriate planting methods for ridging, stem-cutting length, planting orientation and tillage practices to address knowledge gaps in cassava cultivation.
  4. Intercropping – Delayed harvest is another constraint to smallholder cassava production. As cassava is a long duration crop, ACAI is working in collaboration with Farm Concern International to generate appropriate intercropping patterns in Zanzibar. This is aimed to help farmers diversify their incomes and also sustainably intensify their food production. Farm Concern International has suggested sweet potato as an associate crop because of its commercial importance in Zanzibar. Intercropping cassava and sweet-potato will enable farmers harvest their sweet potato in the short term for food and income prior to harvesting their long duration cassava crop. As both cassava and sweet potatoes are root crops and heavy nutrient miners, it is very important to have the right intercropping pattern in order to avoid over competition and ensure optimum yield of both crops.
  5. Scheduled planting – Smallholder farmers need the drive to produce cassava as an income source. Most cassava factories, which smallholder farmers supply with cassava roots, complain about cassava supply from farmers not matching their yearly processing demand. Traditionally, smallholder farmers harvest their cassava in piecemeal over a year. They are also not sure of the best period to plant or harvest for optimum root and starch yield. It is for this reason that the ACAI project partnered with Cassava Adding Value for Africa to develop Decision Support Tools for scheduled cassava planting trial over different planting and harvesting windows of the year.
  6. High starch content – Due to different planting and harvesting periods, smallholder farmers are also curious to obtain information on the best period to harvest cassava with high starch content. This is because processing factories tend to pay farmers according to starch content and cassava quality. Usually, from experience, these smallholder farmers know that cassava harvested after a long drought with immediate rainfall prior to harvest tends to have low starch content. Therefore, the ACAI project is conducting field trials on varying the planting of cassava at different times of the year to ascertain the possibility of planting and harvesting cassava over various periods. This will ensure that farmers are able to supply cassava roots to the processing factories throughout the year.”


Q: Finally, how does ACAI hope to facilitate farmers’ uptake of these technologies?

“The decision support tool developed by the ACAI project will enable partners and extension workers transfer this knowledge to farmers through mobile phones. First, a household and farm based survey will be conducted electronically using the open data kit. This device will help gather relevant data on farmers needs and also register their feedback about using the decision support tool.”

This blog was originally posted on CABI’s blog

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