Time for new tools to cut cassava postharvest losses

High yielding cassava roots
Copyright: Flickr/IITA

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[IBADAN, NIGERIA] I know that science has helped in shaping the world through breakthroughs that have revolutionised humanity’s existence and provided valuable solutions to multiple challenges.
Bur currently, cassava, one of Africa’s leading root crops — a staple in over 20 African countries that serves as a huge source of livelihood for millions of families — is faced is facing challenges. For me the big question is:  Will science come to its rescue?

Scientists, especially plant breeders, need to return to the laboratory and develop cassava varieties that will have uniform shapes and sizes.

Kola Adeniji, Niji Farms, Nigeria

Cassava forms part of the daily meal for most families, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. The crop has also been researched thoroughly over the years and this has led to the tremendous improvements witnessed by farmers.
Despite the wonderful improvements, I learnt during a three-day workshop at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, Nigeria last week (4-6 October) that women and children spend many hours processing it. An individual can only peel about 30 kilograms an hour and at most 200 kilograms a day.
Peter Kolawale, a postharvest specialist at the IITA, says more than 45 per cent of the root is lost to the conventional peeling method used by women. “The convention method of using knife and removing the brownish outer cover lead to huge wastage,” Kolawale noted during the workshop, which discussed ways to process cassava to improve livelihoods.
Cassava has a very high amount of cyanide, a fast-acting and potentially deadly chemical, which must be removed from the root before it is consumed. Efforts by technologists across the globe in the past to address this problem has yielded little result.
Kola Adeniji, managing director of Nigeria-based Niji Farms, says that even with the introduction of mechanical processes the problem remains because of the irregular shapes and sizes of the crop, and that scientists need to develop tools that will enable farmers minimise post-harvest losses.

“For instance, scientists, especially plant breeders, need to return to the laboratory and develop cassava varieties that will have uniform shapes and sizes. This way, fabricators can construct machines that can peel the root without wasting it,” says Adeniji.
But as lofty and magnificent as the idea of uniform shape and size may sound, Unamma Chika Victor, an agronomist with the Italy-headquartered International Fund for Agriculture and Development, says developing a uniform form of cassava may be possible with time but may not be acceptable to farmers.
 “Cassava is a root crop that grows on the top soil and can expand so long as the soil is fertile, so controlling it to maintain certain shape or size may be difficult,” explains Victor.  “With science, almost everything is possible but we have to consider the time, resources and fund needed to undertake such research and more importantly [and whether] farmers like it.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.