Nigerian women prepare for cassava war

Posted: 20 December 2004

Author: Bimbo Oloyede

Nigerian women are confronting big time export interests in a war over their traditional staple food, cassava. The women simply want to keep the popular "gari" (the local term for cassava) on their family menu while the government and several donors and international agencies have set their sights on the export market.

Cassava is cultivated for its tuberous roots, from which cassava flour, breads and tapioca are derived. It is in demand for several reasons. For countries in central and southern Africa, cassava is used as a major ingredient in the production of animal feed. Cassava is also useful to producers of paper and gum; and it is processed into high quality starch for industrial and pharmaceutical use.

Women peeling cassava at roadside market, Nigeria. © Piero Tartagni/IFAD
Women peeling cassava at roadside market, Nigeria. © Piero Tartagni/IFAD
Women peeling cassava at roadsidemarket, Nigeria.© Piero Tartagni/IFAD
The US Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and the Shell Petroleum Development Company have signed a US$11 million agreement to support the Cassava Enterprise Development Project in the Niger Delta. The crop produced will be for export. The Nigerian housewife, despite the obvious gains, has been left wondering what impact foreign exchange earnings from cassava will have where it matters most - the dining table.

Regardless of the uphill task women now face keeping their families well fed, the long-term economic gains from cassava exports cannot be ignored. With a potential income of US$5 billion - about one-third of the income from crude oil - every effort is being made to put agriculture back in pride of place, thereby lessening Nigeria's dependence on oil.

Becoming scarce

President Olusegun Obasanjo set up a committee, headed by federal Attorney-General Akin Olujimi, to prepare a draft bill on the use of cassava for bread-making. This came almost three months after the inauguration of another presidential committee on cassava - this time on preparing and developing cassava products for export.

Ironically, these initiatives are coming to the fore at a time when cassava meal, the staple for more than 60 per cent of Nigerians, is becoming increasingly scarce. Some recall the government's earlier moves to protect the cost of this staple, conserving it for home consumption, and the resulting export ban.

Since the ban was lifted, cassava smuggling has become a thriving business across the border with Benin. With the ban still in force in that country, surplus quantities have led to a crash in prices there, and it is now cheaper to buy cassava smuggled into Nigeria than buy locally from the southern regions.

Big farmers

Says Deborah Daramola, a matron in a private hospital in Lagos and mother of three: "We are tired of the whole situation. We eat more gari than any other staple. This is something we produce in Nigeria, so why is it that the price only goes up?"

Girls sell cassava flour at roadside market, Nigeria. Photo: Piero Tartagni/IFAD
Girls sell cassava flour at roadside market, Nigeria. Photo: Piero Tartagni/IFAD
Girls sell cassava flour at roadside market, Nigeria.© Piero Tartagni/IFAD
She claims market women have let it be known that local gari is loaded into vehicles and taken to the north or exported. "Where does that leave us? Why doesn't the government do something to increase gari production at home, so that it will be within the reach of everyone? We are not prepared to make any more sacrifices."

Some farmers are also unimpressed by the potential gains from exporting cassava. There is an underlying feeling that hard currency transactions are only for the big mechanised farmers who are not interested in home consumption.

Says Victor Roberts, a farmer who grows cassava in Lagos state and produces gari for local consumption: "These new initiatives will benefit only the agents, who are few in number. The market has already become closed and these agents only exploit the smaller farmers. Although they offer slightly higher prices, the agents make the real profit without going through the headache of growing and nurturing the tuber."

Research needed

According to Roberts, the government should be funding research on improving cassava production methods, which would eventually lead to a drop in costs for the end user.

Funmilayo Ajayi, director of the Ekiti State Department of Agriculture, says Nigeria is the largest producer of cassava in the world and, since it grows easily on most soil types, earning from oil should be invested in cassava production for food security. "Oil money should be given to research institutions to look into preservation methods, and peasant farmers should cultivate food for consumption while surpluses can be used for industrial purposes," she says.

The fears regarding cassava are well founded, especially when you take into consideration the painfully long process small producers go through to get their product to the market. Mama Folarin has only recently been able to significantly reduce production time after buying both frying and sifting machines: "My assistant and I used to fry 10 hours daily for five days to produce 200 kilos of cassava - that is four bags. Now I can do it in an hour."

Family budget

Now she is able to sift 100 kilos in 45 minutes instead of the five hours it used to take her prior to buying her equipment. With improved production, she hopes to acquire a pressing machine to dry the cassava before sifting and frying.

External pressures on cassava are also likely to affect the hospitality industry. In major towns across the country, private businessmen have invested heavily in hotels, guesthouses and tourist resorts that are popular venues for conferences and other meetings. For such establishments, haphazard and unstable pricing can have devastating results.

For the average Nigerian householder, however, it all boils down to whether children will get nutritious and filling meals; mothers stretching the ever-shrinking naira to meet the family's needs; and harassed fathers eking out a living in the face of an ever-rising family budget.

Source: Women's Feature Service and Africa Woman