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Climate-Smart Crop Takes Root in Zambia

Photo courtesy of AfDB

The starchy root crop cassava is also known as a ‘Rambo root.’ Not only for its rugged appearance, but also because it’s very resilient. In hot temperatures with very little water, it can grow better than other food crops like potatoes, maize, beans, millet or sorghum. Cassava is also the second most important source of carbohydrates in sub-Saharan African after maize, enjoyed by millions across the continent every day. Cassava is an important industrial crop, providing starch, alcohol as well as stock feeds.

But in Zambia, cassava supplies are low, with inadequate quality planting materials (stakes) known as vegetative seeds, leading to dwindling yields and pest and disease infestations, and impacting food security and income for farmers. At the same time, while farmers fail to find root buyers, experience from other countries shows that cassava processors – who can offer farmers a good return for their crop, processing it into flour, garri, ethanol or animal feed – often lack supply. 

Supported by the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) and the African Development Bank’s flagship Technologies for African Agriculture (TAAT) program, the US$ 34.87 million Agriculture Productivity and Market Enhancement Project (APMEP) in Zambia brings together the government, private sector, and researchers to jointly tackle these issues in an integrated manner. Since about 70% of the country’s rural population relies on agriculture, the project is working with partners including the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI) and the CGIAR center, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), aimed to focus first on boosting crop yields for both food security and marketing, and secondly to establish processing capacity for value addition through a 30mt/day cassava milling plant in central Zambia.

From better yield to boosted income: a holistic approach 

With IITA technical assistance, the APMEP project set up a 500-hectare cassava demonstration farm, to show farmers why cassava is a climate-resilient crop to grow and to test different varieties for best suitability in the area. With high-yielding varieties, and advice about best planting methods and where to buy quality cuttings, cassava can improve farmer yields despite conditions such as drought. To multiply quality cassava cuttings for farmers in the long-run, IITA introduced Semi-autorophic Hydroponics (SAH), a novel, low-cost and licensed method of rapidly multiplying cassava to make cassava planting varieties suitable for local climate and soils available in quantity and quality to more farmers.

Cassava expert and breeder at IITA, Pheneas Ntawuruhunga, explains: “From the CGIAR perspective, we develop different improved varieties to boost yields and income through our research, but then they need to be taken to as many farmers as possible. Through this partnership, we showed farmers how improved varieties can increase productivity and improved use of herbicides, fertilizer or irrigation. Then we worked with some lead farmers to multiply healthy and disease-free planting material, to sell to other farmers. And then, we worked with the cassava milling plant, to ensure farmers could sell their roots.” 

Through this partnership, we showed farmers how improved varieties can increase productivity and improved use of herbicides, fertilizer or irrigation.

A cassava plantlet production facility was established to produce 500,000 plantlets per year, to be sold to seed farmers, who produce cuttings to sell to other farmers to earn extra income or put more food on the table. To ensure high-quality cuttings are available to more farmers, 58 “seed bulking farms” were established jointly by IITA and ZARI, the Ministry of Agriculture’s Extension Services, and other local partners. These farms managed by smallholder farmers established across Zambia, serve as sources of seeds for the seed bulking activities. More seed farmers will be supported with planting materials using the existing 58 farms as seed stock. At least four of the Seed Farms are near an APMEP-established cassava processing factory in Chitambo district, which will buy cassava roots from farmers around the plant. 

Increasing value for farmers in the long-term 

Sylvester Mwanza, APMEP Coordinator, explains: “We think cassava can be a long-term solution to support farmers because it is not a seasonal crop, it is available all year-round. The cassava milling plant, established with the GAFSP funding, has the capacity to process 30 tons of cassava per day, producing flour, starch and animal feed. Already, we are working with 4,000 farmers around the plant, and because they can see the market for their product, they are improving and increasing their cassava production. Farmers have seen that industry is looking for good quality varieties, and through the partnership with IITA, we are ensuring they can get disease-free, quality cuttings to grow.”

The researchers are now working alongside partners in the national research station, to expand local information services for farmers. For instance, training extension staff from the Ministry of Agriculture and lead farmers about planting techniques which can improve increase yields, such as adequate planting distances. "This technology is going to help strengthen the seed system in Zambia as many industries that are constructed by the private sector want to use cassava for the production of ethanol, starch, and animal feed in future,” added Mwanza, emphasizing the need to focus on opportunities for job creation among the youth. 

This technology is going to help strengthen the seed system in Zambia as many industries that are constructed by the private sector want to use cassava for the production of ethanol, starch, and animal feed in future.

To date, the APMEP project has benefitted more than 73,891 people, more than half of them women, through its various component activities. In the future, these same methods of expanding production of cassava will also be applied to improving the seed system in Togo, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. The project has also provided nutrition groups with biofortified orange maize seed, orange-flesh sweet potatoes, iron-rich beans and fish fingerlings, alongside infrastructure facilities and advice like irrigation and drainage services. Support has also been given to improve production of other crops as well. “For example, this year, we have 1,000 hectares of rice and procured a combine harvester to help farmers harvest. Since 2017, our rice demonstration plots have doubled to 500 hectares of rice last year,” said Mwanza. 

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  • Climate Change