Creating change with Cassava Improving the livelihoods of cassava farmers and traders in uganda

Cassava, a ubiquitous crop in Uganda

As you crisscross the Ugandan countryside, the distinctive leaves of the cassava plant catch your eye everywhere you look. Cassava roots can be seen piled high along the roadside ready for sale. Sold in heaps of three to five, the freshly harvested roots are usually found still covered in soil fresh from harvesting.

The Ugandan cassava customer is a discerning one with a great ability to select the best roots for consumption chosen by assessing color, texture, skin type, size and shape. For urban consumers in cities like Kampala and Entebbe the right variety of cassava, purchased within a few hours of harvest and grown in favorable conditions, is a delicacy and a must-have ingredient in many meals. For those in the countryside, with less disposable income, cassava is the food security crop of choice. It gives children the energy to concentrate in school, parents the strength to work and also provides many farming families with a much needed income to pay school fees, buy food and look after the daily demands of life.

In Uganda, food and nutrition security remain a fundamental challenge, with almost 30 percent of households considered food insecure. Chronic undernutrition in children is a critical issue and micronutrient deficiencies, including vitamin A and iron, are highly prevalent in women and children. Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

200 million people depend on cassava as their staple food

With more cassava produced in Africa than anywhere else in the world and more than 200 million people depending on it as their main staple food, cassava plays a vital role in reducing food and nutrition insecurity in the region. In Uganda, cassava is described as a food security crop. Drought resistant and able to be left in the ground for long periods of time without harvesting, cassava can serve as a bridging crop for many families vulnerable to food insecurity.

Throughout cassava producing countries, it is widely recognized that the production, consumption and marketing of cassava is heavily affected by the rapid and immediate deterioration of the roots once harvested, which leads to complete spoilage within a matter of days. In Uganda, a large amount of cassava is commercialized in the highly perishable fresh form so farmers and traders alike have a constant struggle of managing supply before it spoils.

Local smallholder farmers pose with their cassava harvest. Innovations that can prolong the shelf-life of fresh cassava roots are in high demand by farmers and traders as it will help to reduce post-harvest losses, relieve marketing pressure and can create new domestic and international markets. Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Alleviating pressure on cassava farmers and traders

Throughout Uganda, there is severe pressure on cassava farmers and traders to sell the crop immediately after harvesting. To cope with this, they are often forced to sell at a lower price if they still have roots to sell a day or two after harvest. This drop in price alongside large amounts of wasted crop that spoils before it is sold places undue pressure on smallholder farmers and traders who are already very economically vulnerable actors in the value chain. Creating a longer lasting root would give these actors more freedom to market and transport their crop and to have a more powerful voice in the transaction process with customers.

Cassava roots for sale at a marketplace in Fort Portal, Uganda. Cassava traders are particularly vulnerable to price fluctuation. A longer lasting cassava root could provide traders with new opportinities to better control the price at which they sell Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Extending the shelf-life of fresh cassava roots

We make our way to a research facility on the outskirts of Kampala, managed by the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) of Uganda. Here, a group of scientists are researching how to extend the shelf-life of fresh cassava roots. By doing so they hope to transform the cassava industry which could increase incomes for individuals along the value chain and reduce post-harvest losses and food waste.

Sharon holds a waxed and a non-waxed cassava root. As part of the project, two pack houses will be established where fresh cassava roots will be treated and subjected to waxing and relative humidity storage. Sensory evaluation of the treated roots will be carried out, while socio-economic studies on consumers’ acceptability and willingness-to-pay for the treated crops will be conducted. Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Sharon Acheng, a second year masters student at Makarere University is a young researcher who believes strongly that agricultural research for development can improve lives. Sharon is one of three students conducting post-graduate research on cassava in coordination with NARO and the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas.

Sharon is contributing to research on how applying a wax coating over the root could improve cassava shelf life. Widely practiced in Latin America and the Caribbean, waxing has proven to extend the shelf-life of fresh cassava roots to over 30 days which creates the possibility for new market opportunities. This kind of technology would be a game changer in Uganda where rapid deterioration of the crop has severely limited growth of the domestic and international market.

Sharon Acheng is a second year masters student at Makarere University who is researching how wax might be able to improve the shelf life of cassava. Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

To conduct the research, Sharon receives cassava from the field to trial with the wax technology. After scrubbing and drying, the roots are dipped in a disinfectant and fungicide solution. Sharon brings over a large tub of wax to show us: "We heat the wax to 160-200 degrees centigrade and then dip the cassava into the wax, making sure it is completely covered for a few seconds. Then you leave it to dry in just a few seconds. Fresh cassava roots are highly perishable and spoil within three days of harvesting which means that cassava must be eaten very quickly. Wax, creates a curtain over the cassava which covers the entire root and slows the perishing process."

"We are still in the process of testing the technology. We are using different samples to compare post-harvest physiological deterioration (PPD) to see what effect wax has and for how long. We want to understand the role that wax can play in preserving cassava so that we can then make recommendations to those in the cassava value chain," explains Sharon.

The team is researching two technologies to decrease post harvest losses - relative humidity storage bags and waxing. Here, Sharon displays both technologies that are being research at the NARO offices in Uganda Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

South-south collaboration and capacity development

The team working on cassava technologies travelled to Cali, Colombia in 2015 to learn about a range of post harvest practices and technology from International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and CIRAD scientists. The team also received invaluable support from Elias Rico, a private sector entrepreneur in Colombia, who shared his experiences using these technologies.

The Ugandan team learned key lessons during this collaboration. Firstly, that for waxing and relative humidity technologies to be effective agronomic and pre-harvesting practices must be improved. Pruning affects the efficacy of these technologies in extending the shelf-life and can change product taste so must be integrated into harvest practices.

Secondly, the team learned that technologies which extend shelf-life work best for undamaged roots. As such, ridge planting, which minimises damage to roots during harvesting, should be advised. And thirdly, the team learnt the critical lesson that entrepreneurial drive is a critical component of business development and Elias Rico shared some inside tips on challenges and opportunities he had found with his business in Latin America.

The team learnt about a variety of technologies including waxing, pruning prior to harvest (six days before harvesting) and PPD. The team learnt that these techniques are synergistic and together can provide extended shelf life of up to one month. In Latin America these technologies have been used by industry with great success. The expertise shared with the visitors is being shared amongst the large team of scientists working on the cassava industry in Uganda.

Developing young scientists to work on relevant, demand driven research

We are joined by Harriet Muyinza, the project investigator at NARO. Harriet emphasizes the importance of the CGIAR and NARO collaboration which allows the RTB ENDURE project to harness existing knowledge and expertise from the national agricultural system. The collaboration also helps to develop the capacity of young researchers who will lead the way in dealing with food and nutrition security issues in the years to come.

Harriet Muyinza, the project investigator for the project and part of the NARO team displays waxed cassava which is currently being tested Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Harriet emphasizes how important it is for NARO to participate in agricultural and scientific research which is relevant to the national agricultural agenda and which will provide direct impact for the people of Uganda: "Uganda is the sixth largest producer of cassava in Africa so this research is extremely important for the country. We think this technology is very relevant for smallholder farmers, especially those who depend on the fresh food market."

"Over the coming months, we will test this technology in a variety of ways to understand its optimal use across a number of cassava varieties. Once we optimize the technology, then we shall look at ways to take the technology to market in an affordable and accessible way. We are also increasing our understanding of the inherent differences across the available varieties and their natural ability to delay deterioration,". says Harriet

As part of the research, a market and value chain study has been conducted to identify challenges and opportunities along the fresh cassava value chain and to assess the level of postharvest losses in cassava varieties Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Building a bridge between scientists and farmers

Drought resistant and able to be left in the ground for long periods of time without harvesting, cassava can serve as a bridging crop for many families vulnerable to food insecurity. Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Dressed in a white coat, Ephraim Nuwamanya ushers us inside the newly built NARO labs. The labs are clean and sparse with staff quietly working behind glass panes. They are busy looking through microscopes, reviewing test results and recording data. Ephraim, a biochemist by training, is another key player contributing to this research through the analysis of the biochemical processes related to the deterioration of cassava.

"My work is to understand the chemical factors in each cassava variety and how they affect the progression of deterioration in the cassava root. We want to understand these chemical factors and inherent genetic factors that are found in the root -such as sugars, cyanide and carbohydrates etc - and how they affect deterioration". As part of the research Ephraim and his team test, validate and promote the adoption of shelf-life extension technologies.

Some of the cassava based products that are being tested by Ephraim and his team Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Ephraim, receives cassava samples regularly and analyses its chemical properties - this acts as a baseline for further analysis down the line. He takes the samples through different levels of deterioration and samples the root at different intervals (three, seven, ten and fourteen days) to assess changes in chemical properties: "the roots that we sample are taken through what we call PPD scoring. Each one is given different scores which then become the basis for understanding the chemical differences in each variety," explains Ephraim. "We are also supporting the research on waxing technology and relative humidity."

Linking isolated farmers with urban markets

The high perishability of cassava also makes it very challenging for farmers located in remote areas to access more lucrative urban markets or to supply distant processing industries. On the other hand, both consumers and traders reduce the volumes of cassava that they trade in. This can limit incentives for investment in increased productivity and the emergence of a more commercially oriented sector. In the process of investigating how to solve some of these problems, Ephraim and his colleagues are proving that science and agricultural research can directly impact on the livelihoods of farmers throughout the country. With cassava becoming an increasingly popular item on the menus of urban restaurants and cafes the importance of establishing links between farmers and urban business owners is vital. IITA, NARO and IIRR scientists have started to test some varieties at market whose shelf-life and eating quality have been improved with these new technologies.

Fresh cassava is a popular meal throughout Uganda. There is a huge domestic market for cassava in a variety of forms including fresh roots, processed cassava products and cooked cassava in restaurants and cafes Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Creating change with agricultural research for development

This is just one component of a larger research goal to contribute to improved food availability and income generation with root and tuber crops in Uganda. With young scientists taking the lead on new and relevant research which is at the nexus of agricultural research for development, the future for this cassava loving country is looking bright.

As we make our way back to Kampala, slowly meandering along the main road which is packed with Friday afternoon traffic we look out the window and see a group of young women selling cassava along the roadside. It is a nice reminder for the young scientists in the car that the research they do in the confines of the lab will directly impact the daily lives of the countless Ugandans who farm, harvest, transport, sell and consume this vital crop.

Female cassava traders outside a market in Fort Portal, Uganda. The project works along the Kampala-Kabarole axis, with farmers and traders in the districts of Kyenjojo and Fort Portal, and with wholesalers in Kampala. Credit: S. Quinn/CIP

Why this research is important

In Sub-Saharan Africa, root, tuber and banana crops are an important source of food and income. However, their full potential has not yet been realized due several constraints, including bulkiness and high perishability of the crops, poor postharvest management and lack of storage and processing facilities. These constraints result in high postharvest losses, short marketing channels and limited value adding.

Expanding utilization of roots, tubers and bananas and reducing their postharvest losses

RTB ENDURE is a 3 year project (2014-2016) implemented by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas with funding from the European Union and technical support of IFAD. Its ultimate goal is to contribute to improved food security for RTB producing communities in eastern and central Africa, including producers and other value chain actors.

The team

The research team is led by IITA and comprises CIAT, NARO, CIRAD International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), Makerere University, Kyambogo University and value chain actors in Masindi, Kabarole and Kampala districts.

Words & Images: Sara Quinn, Regional Communications Specialist, International Potato Center

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