Three years later, 11 million people are in dire need of food in the Horn of Africa.
Widely grown in more than 100 countries in Asia, Latin America and tropical Africa, the starchy tuber said to have originated in Brazil, feeds about 800 million people around the world.
And while it is drought-resistant, cassava is labour-intensive when it comes to harvesting and, its bulky roots are highly perishable.
In addition, improper preparation of cassava can leave enough residual cyanide to cause acute intoxication goitres and, according researchers, partial paralysis.
That in turn has led the world’s third largest source of starch to be known as the poor man’s crop, neglected and excluded from the dining tables of the wealthy.
Food for most of Africa
And the root of that perception dates back to colonisation as Mr John Wambua, a researcher in Agricultural Economics at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), explains.
“Since cassava was not promoted by the Europeans as maize and wheat were, we never really thought much of it.”
Now maize, the preferred traditional source of carbohydrates for human food for most of Africa is no longer a reliable option due to unreliable productivity owing to the changing weather patterns.
That leaves the continent looking for an alternative to supplement or the 34.8 million tons of maize it consumes per annum.
But the fact of the matter is that, as Mr Wambua points out, far less research and development have been devoted to cassava than to rice, maize and wheat.
A factor that led a number of players in the starch-based industry to dismiss its benefits simply out of ignorance as a 2001 survey carried out by the Department of Food Science Technology and Nutrition of the University of Nairobi on the marketing opportunities for cassava-based products revealed.
Jambo Biscuits, a Kenyan firm expressed concern over cassava’s shelf life, fineness and taste when explaining its reliance on maize starch and wheat.
Flour manufacturer Atta told the researchers that “cassava cannot work in bread due to the taste.”
But Tobias Makosi, a cassava farmer from Eastern Kenya, differs. In the two years he has been supplying his neighbours with cassava bread every morning for Sh35, “business has been good”.
No unsavoury feedback from customers. But cassava growing isn’t making much of headway. Farmers have little or no access to improved varieties, production inputs and by extension, access to markets.
Now with the new cassava varieties developed by KARI, small-scale farmers have had some of their problems addressed.
Through a European Union funded project called Kenya Arid and Semi Arid Land (KASAL) management, farmers in Eastern Africa are encouraged to form groups called Commercial Cassava Villages for better organisation.
When the farmers in the various areas were approached for the project, “they were only too eager because the maize that they had depended on had failed them repeatedly,” says Mr Wambua.
Today, their families benefit from the project as a bulky tuber, could feed a single family for breakfast, lunch, supper and they would still have some left over to take with tea the next day. The leaves too are eaten.
More than just a meal
But the project challenges the members to think of cassava as more than just a meal.
With access to improved cassava cuttings to plant for as little as Sh2 for every 30cm-long stem, farmers can now think of dedicating more land to the tuber as a cash crop.
According to KARI, a well-managed improved variety of cassava crop can produce up to 15 tubers per plant in about eight months leaving the farmers with some extra stock to sell.
Joseph Masyuki and his colleagues at Mbuvo Commercial Cassava Village project in Eastern Kenya are now able to harvest, process and package the cassava into flour for sale.
The 33,000 cuttings they bought are expected to produce about 330 tonnes to service both their domestic and commercial demands.
“We sell the flour at Sh100 per kilo and the demand for cassava in Makueni County is becoming higher than the supply,” says Masyuki.
Now similar projects have been set up in Tanzania and Uganda through Farm Concern International and with the support of Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA) targeting about 30,000 households.
But as Mr Wambua sees it, “Governments should ensure that starch-based industries use cassava starch. If for instance they say that every starch-based product must have sourced ten per cent of the starch needed from the tuber, then farmers will be motivated to produce cassava to meet the demand.”
More than 300 food and non-food industrial products can be made from cassava.
Besides porridge, mandazi, chapati, fufu, gari and other foods, the textile, foundry, furniture, paper packaging and pharmaceutical industries use cassava- derived raw material.
Cassava starch is also used in the making of biofuel, adhesives, corrugated boards, gums, wallpaper, alcohol, drugs, plastics, stain removers and even diapers.
As at 2001, Kenya’s total market for starch-based products was estimated to be over 12,000 metric tonnes a year for its 30 million people.
Today, with an additional 10 million people within its borders, the market is certainly ripe for a new entrant to replace maize.
A decade ago, the few industries that used cassava as a raw material, cited the inconsistent supply and quality of the cassava as a major challenge.
That is set to change. The Economic Review of Agriculture 2010 reports more cassava acreage than there was in 2005.
As for Nigeria, the world’s largest producer of cassava, a more streamlined production and marketing system, researchers say, could take its economic impact higher.
In the meantime, Thailand’s success story should encourage cassava production anywhere.
The country has made the crop its main foreign cash earner in between supplying the European Union countries with animal feed and commercial-scale production of biofuels.
Today, the country is one of the world’s leading agri-food exporters. But the transformation from a famine-reserve rural staple to a cash crop for urban consumption is a tall order for any African country.
FAO Plant Production and Protection Division director, Mahmoud B. Sohl, recommends further research investment in order realise the full potential of the crop.
That way, he says, Africa can develop labour-saving production, harvesting and processing technologies to reduce costs, improve productivity and make cassava more competitive.