INTERVIEW: Why Nigeria isn’t producing enough cassava for its population

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Cassava is one of the most important food crops in Nigeria. It feeds majority of the country’s population, yet, the country has never had enough of it and the prices of derived products such as garri, fufu, cassava flour, have always remained upwards.

Things have gone worse with Nigeria’s inflation reaching the highest levels in years lately. Food inflation reached a 15-year high in February.

Benjamin Okoye, who holds a doctorate in Agric. Economics, and is the Chief Research Officer, Cassava Research Programme at the National Root Crops Research Institute, Umudike, speaks to PREMIUM TIMES on what he considers as reasons Nigeria’s cassava production level has remained low. He suggests solutions.

EXCERPT:

Nigeria currently holds the record of being the largest producer of cassava in the world, but the trend in yield performance (production per hectare) remains low, thereby causing increase in the prices of its derivatives. What would you say can be done to increase productivity?

As you know, cassava is an important staple food to Nigerians, it has a lot of derivative products and the importance also has to do with cassava being an export crop. But you find out that even when Nigeria is the highest producer of cassava in the world, Nigeria is not even the highest exporter of cassava and its products in the world. We don’t have a good price for our cassava at the international market. Other countries like Thailand, Brazil are far ahead of us in the export market. One reason is that our productivity is very low compared to productivity in some of these developed countries. When you look at our statistics, the productivity is about a little above 10 tonnes per hectare, but you also find out that even in our own soil at a time, the Zimbabwean farmers who came to crop cassava in Nigeria, got about 50 tonnes per hectare.

In our own case here as a national institute, we have a mandate for cassava, both breeding genetics and socioeconomic for cassava in Nigeria. Over the years, we have developed a lot of improved varieties that have the potential for yield of about 30, 40 to 45 tonnes per hectare, but one thing you find out is that when the farmers hear or see improved varieties, they feel it is something you plant then go to sleep.

To improve the productivity of cassava in the country, a lot of awareness has to be done to help the farmers in best agricultural practices. A lot of farmers still plant their local varieties; they don’t even have access to these new varieties. We advocate for farmers to use improved varieties, follow the rules and higher productivity will come.

When given the improved varieties, you don’t just plant and go back to sleep, you have to apply inputs as and when due, plant as and when due, apply fertilizer at the right time, make sure your field is cleared at the right time. The moment weeds invade it, it will affect the yield as well as productivity.

However, adequate cultural practices are necessary in order to achieve this higher productivity. Every variety has its own potential for higher productivity but if you suppress it, it can even give you as low as five tons per hectare.

In the area of disease management, a lot of viruses attack cassava, and in this institute, we have done a lot of research to come up with improved varieties that are resistant to such diseases and pests and then also, we have come out with technologies in terms of the kind of herbicide that can be used to control such diseases and pests. So diseases and pest are other challenges in the sector that affects productivity.

Farmers are complaining how this herbicides kill cassava when applied, what is responsible for that ?

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I will say it’s a wrong usage of the herbicide by the farmers. The herbicide is meant to kill weeds, you don’t spray it on cassava, if sprayed on cassava it will die because the herbicide mostly works on leaves, so when it touches cassava, it will die.

It shows that the farmers are not well informed on the proper usage of this herbicide.

Exactly.

So as an institute, what are you doing to correct this misinformation?

We are doing a lot of training and we work hand in hand with the Agricultural Development Programme (ADP) in each state. This is because they are the extension workers that will take some of this information to the grassroots, but because of funding and other limitations, some ADPs seem not to be functioning, so we also go out of our ways as an institute to get to the farmers by ourselves. We meet them either in groups, corporate or as NGOs. We brief and train them on different best farm practices, pest and disease management among others, we have done a lot in that area and what we also advocate for is “train the trainers. When you are trained, you can as well train others and that will help to disseminate the information more to the farmers in the grassroots.

The country has been in a difficult situation since last year due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Would you say it has affected the production of cassava in the country?

Absolutely, there is an effect. Without being told, there is a negative effect in all agricultural produce, not only cassava.

The pandemic is a global one and during the last year’s lockdown, farmers generally were constrained with access to their farms as well as impute like improved varieties, fertilizers, chemicals, therefore, these things delayed planting and this will delay productivity. Though the government exempted farmers and other essential workers from movement restriction, there were restrictions in some parts of the country to farmers.

Also, farmers too were afraid of the dreaded pandemic, so access to farms and other inputs were limited. So these will have a negative effect on the agricultural production level.

Most farmers lament about government negligence in terms of support to the farmers. Can you say there is adequate support from the government to farmers to increase cassava production in the country?

I would not say there is enough support for the farmers. But even if there is, there might be some challenges or constraints mitigating the efficiency of such support to the farmers.

Getting to the right hands, most times some of these might not even get to the right hands. The government has done a lot in terms of providing support to farmers in agriculture. Now, it is like a channel, the government might give the support and how it is disseminated to the farmers is another thing. And again how are the farmers using such support, some of them may use it for wrong purposes.

What can be done to check the challenges of government support getting to the right hands and how is it being used by the farmers?

Databases can do this. Databases are very important because that is where the developed world is taking over. Database of who is who in agriculture, who are the farmers, their phone numbers, locations, and their statistics, will help to curtail these abnormalities.

With a computer or smartphone, with a small click, you will be able to identify the farmers or group of farmers in a particular location and how you can access them.

And you believe this can control the challenges of accessing the farmers?

Definitely, it will, I can assure you that.

In terms of research, would you say the root crops research institutes in the country have performed creditably well?

Yes, I will say we have done well. Nigeria is the highest producer of cassava in the world, therefore most of those food come from this institute. Not just cassava, yam, cocoyam. The highest producer of these crops in the world is Nigeria and the National Root Crops Research Institute, Umudike, has the national mandate for research on those crops in Nigeria and we have generated a lot of varieties over the years and you know the varieties you generated probably 40 years ago, genetic carries the breakdown of research and we do a lot of research and we continue releasing a lot of varieties every two years to replace the old ones that have genetically broken down, so we have been doing that in collaboration with a lot of institutions such as IITA.

ALSO READ: IITA, partners make case for cassava seed system as demand exceeds N10bn

In terms of funding, not only the government that has been giving funding to do these things but we also have donors like Bill and Melinda Gate, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and a lot of them and we are working with a lot of other institutions to deliver the mandate on cassava in this country.

Extreme climatic events such as flooding, extreme heat, and drought can lead to soil degradation which will result in low crop yields. Would you say this climatic event does have an effect on Cassava?

Yes, we have some advanced climatic effect on cassava, but first of all, it may interest you to know that cassava is a hard crop. It is drought-resistant in nature that can survive in dry areas. For example, I always planted cassava between October and November, by that time, there is not enough rain to wet the soil much but the cassava is there surviving.

Even the morning dew is enough for cassava to survive, only that the growth will be suppressed but when the next rain comes, it picks up from there, and we call it stagnant planting. I plant Three times a year to be able to have cassava available all year round. The stem bundles are important; people need them to plant, so with this kind of stagnant planting, you will be able to get inputs for farmers whenever they want it.

Finally, what are your recommendations for higher productivity of cassava in the country?

A lot of farmers do not still know what we are doing, a lot of farmers still plant their local varieties, they don’t even have access to these varieties and most of these technologies are still on the shelves hanging, the farmers are not aware. If there can be rapid dissemination of these improved varieties to farmers especially in the rural areas, who do not have access to come out or to access some of these new varieties, it will help farmers to increase their yield.,

Most of them even have the resources to buy but they don’t know how and where to get them.

Secondly, training on how to use the input is very important and I encourage farmers to also help themselves. It is not all about giving them money or grants, sometimes, it doesn’t solve the problem because when you give such: to me, it is just like giving relief packages and so they will use it for other personal needs, abandoning the real purpose of the money.

Also, farmers can help themselves by forming groups and corporations, this will help them to access materials. One person cannot do it but a group of persons can do it. If they put their efforts together as corporate, as groups, and make bargains.

For example, one farmer or two farmers may not have the access to attract a tractor but as a group, they can attract a tractor and the tractor will work on their fields because most of them may have one or two hectares of land scattered around. As a group, they can bargain and get inputs on low cost, as a group they can also market their products and training can also be done in groups and clusters by different specialists and experts.

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