Kenya: Fighting a food crisis

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By Debbie DeVoe

"Cassava is the crop that can fight poverty in this region," says Hannington Obiero, head of the cassava program and research officer at the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute in Kakamega, western Kenya.

Back in 1997, such a statement would be hard to believe. Just over a decade ago, a virulent form of cassava mosaic disease crossed the Ugandan border into western Kenya and wiped out just about every cassava field around Lake Victoria. For Americans, this would be like Idaho farmers losing every spud in the ground-and having no protection from losing future potato harvests.

Kenyan families that relied on the root crop as a key staple of their daily diet watched their plants wither and rot. Farmers in Uganda and Tanzania also saw their fields of cassava succumb to the pandemic, with fields in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo following over the next few years.

The disease destroyed plants, diminishing harvests anywhere from 70 percent to 100 percent. Afraid that new plants would also become infected, farmers abandoned cassava, drastically reducing a reliable food source across the region.

Losing a Safety Net

Cassava is the primary food staple of sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for more than half of all calories consumed. Think of it like you would rice in Asia or potatoes in Ireland. Whether it's a side dish or the main course, in many African villages a meal isn't really a meal without it.

Families dig up any number of cassava roots, which look like large, white-fleshed sweet potatoes. They then cut them up and dry them, often spreading the chalky chunks out on the hot tarmac at the side of a road. Next they grind the pieces into flour, from which they make a dense, dough-like starch dish, often mixed with some sorghum or millet. Some communities also like to cook up the nutritious green leaves.

"Although cassava has a long growing cycle, taking one year or more for roots to mature, it is an inexpensive crop that offers families exceptional food security," explains Benard Odero. Odero is Catholic Relief Services Kenya's country program manager for the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, a six-country project funded by a private foundation to stem the spread of cassava diseases across the region.

Cassava offers numerous advantages. The drought-tolerant crop fares well across various agricultural zones, including semi-arid regions. It requires little care, can be replanted through cuttings from existing bushes, and produces high yields that can be harvested piecemeal, enabling families to stretch out food availability. In addition, cassava can be sold commercially as a food source and even potentially for its starch content for enterprises like paper making.

The disappearance of this staple stung families in the Great Lakes region. In Kenya, many farmers turned instead to maize. Although corn grows much more quickly than cassava, it's a more demanding crop. Fields must be planted from seed each year Expensive fertilizer is required for high yields. Considerable rain is needed for successful harvests. Corn is very labor-intensive. And if rains fail, families are left with little or no buffer.

"Families can withstand emergencies when they have cassava in the ground, as there is always another root to dig up or a plant cutting to sell," Odero adds. "But when other cash crops fail, families must divert their already minimal resources into buying supplemental food. If things get even worse, they are forced to take children out of school-no longer being able to afford tuition fees-and eventually sell precious assets like goats or cows to survive."

Reintroducing Healthy Cassava

Fortunately, agricultural researchers have developed improved cassava varieties that are resistant to cassava mosaic disease. Donors are also providing critical funding to grow these plants in bulk and get healthy cuttings into the hands of African farmers.

n December 2007, a private foundation provided a $21.8 million grant to Catholic Relief Services and our partners to help more than 1 million farm families protect their cassava food source. Another $500,000 from a private CRS donor provides additional staff support.

"By giving farmers access to disease-resistant varieties, we are encouraging them to grow cassava once again," says Michael Potts, director of the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative. "Over time, the project will reestablish healthy fields across the region, resulting in more reliable food supplies and increased income."

Partnering at all Levels

Farmers are also growing and evaluating 50 new cassava varieties to determine which are best for local conditions. The fact that farmers are willing to invest their time and energy for long periods to evaluate these new varieties demonstrates the exceedingly high value placed on cassava.

"Cassava has a good market, with the first market being the stomach," explains Mildred Agola, a Kenyan farmer growing five improved varieties and one local variety of cassava. Because Mildred helped to multiply disease-resistant plants under the former C3P project, her family now has many roots to eat and materials to sell. "We don't have many problems because there is food," she adds.

The project is also encouraging farmer groups to form savings and lending associations to increase their financial security and opportunities. In addition, farmers are receiving agro-enterprise training and assistance in building links to markets for increased profits.

Already, the project is seeing success, with some regions having returned to their original levels of cassava production.

"Our vision is to have a hunger-free community with cassava," says Alfred Etyiang, chairperson of the Agrofarmers Youth Group in Okatikok village in Kenya. "That has already happened in our households."

Debbie DeVoe is CRS' regional information officer in East Africa based in Nairobi. She recently visited farmers and partners in western Kenya participating in the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative.

Data Sharing on the Go

Accurate, up-to-date data exchange is crucial to help stop the spread of cassava diseases. Such exchange is also important to monitor and evaluate the success of the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative and address problems as they emerge. But when working with partners and farmers spread across remote regions in six developing countries, sharing data in a timely fashion can be extremely difficult.

A small, ruggedized computer with Intel components offers hope for faster information exchange. The 2go PC is a miniature laptop. The hand-held computer has a 40GB hard drive, a wireless modem, a small but complete keyboard, and Office Professional software, donated by Microsoft Corporation.

In a special 18-month pilot project, Catholic Relief Services is partnering with Intel to roll out 250 2go PCs to Great Lakes Cassava Initiative partners and field agents. We are also working with two software companies, FormRouter and Kimetrica, to develop simple data entry forms that can be processed quickly by a central database. In addition, CRS is teaming with Agilix to develop training modules to educate farmers on such topics as disease identification, plant spacing for maximum yields and basic business skills. A built-in camera will also let project staff take pictures of cassava fields.

Primary challenges will be ensuring that field agents have periodic access to a power source to recharge batteries and occasional network access to transmit and receive data. Though the pilot is just beginning in the spring of 2009, it has already borne fruit: Project staff have recommended that Intel add a GPS device to future versions of the computer to automatically record locations whenever capturing data.