By the last planting season, virus-free cassava planting material had been distributed to some 330 000 smallholders in countries struck by the virus - Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The improved crop now benefits a total of some 1.65 million people.
"Having cassava back on the table is of major importance, especially to the region's most vulnerable, who have been hit hard by this year's global food crisis," said Eric Kueneman Chief of FAO's Crop and Grassland Service. He added that boosting the production of local crops like cassava is a pillar of FAO's response to the current crisis, which threw an additional 75 million people into poverty in 2007 alone.
In the Great Lakes region though, high prices of food and fertilizer are just part of the problem. As the recent violence in eastern DR Congo tragically demonstrates, the region is still grappling with peace. But, especially under circumstances of extreme instability, cassava can make a crucial difference.
Cassava roots can be harvested whenever there is a need, or left in the ground when farmers are driven from their land. Also, cassava is not an easy prey, when land is unattended: thieves will find it very difficult to dig it from the ground.
"We have come a long way in making this region self-sufficient in cassava again," says Cees Wittebrood of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO), FAO's major partner in its regional cassava operations, adding, "One of our priorities is to ensure that every farmer can grow for his own subsistence, and collaboration with FAO is key in achieving that."
Each person in Africa eats around 80 kg of cassava per year. So, when an aggressive strain of a virus called Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) decimated harvests throughout the Great Lakes region, consequences were disastrous.
In Uganda, for instance, where CMD has destroyed 150 000 hectares of cassava since the early nineties - a loss estimated at $US 60 million per annum - food shortages resulting from CMD led to localized famines in 1993 and 1997.
Tackling the epidemic began with a series of disease-free varieties developed by one of FAO's research partners, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria, which were multiplied in nurseries of a multitude of partners, including national research institutions, local governments and civil society, eventually producing enough planting stakes for mass distribution to the population.
At the same time, FAO embarked on a campaign to boost the capacity and efforts of individual countries in the region, launching a regional cassava initiative in 2006 with funding of several donors led by ECHO, which has contributed € 3.3 million to FAO's different cassava operations since.
Burundi's northern Cibitoke province lies in the epicentre of the CMD epidemic. Its fields, barren until a year ago, now bustle with green from cassava leaves. "It's sweet, not bitter," says Ernest Nduwimana, a young farmer who lost his father during Burundi's civil war, holding up a huge cassava root he has just unearthed.
The crop was good this year, Ernest says. There is enough to feed his family until the next harvest, which he is already preparing to plant with quality cuttings from his own cassava plants. Then, after a long day, he returns home, where his mother has prepared bugari, a local dish based on cassava flour and served with beans and fish.