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Turning away from low value cassava

Beside a large silver-coloured cooking pot, Gladys Wilson sits on a low wooden stool, slowly frying doughnuts for the local school. The smell of fresh baking hangs in the hot afternoon air of Atebubu town in Ghana, as Gladys experiments with her latest new ingredient - cassava flour. The traditional ingredient of wheat flour, she says, is more expensive because it has to be imported, so she has decided to use the flour as a replacement. As head of the Atebubu Bakers' Association, Gladys is one of many people interested in the potential future of the local cassava industry. Fresh cassava or kokonte - meaning 'face the wall' because of its connotations with poverty - has in the past been sold primarily on the roadside, but the crop is increasingly being recognised as a valuable income earner for farmers and as an industrial commodity.

Drying cassava at Kokofu community, Ghana
Drying cassava at Kokofu community, Ghana
credit: John Esser

Using cassava flour as a replacement for wheat flour is the result of an initiative introduced by the Food Research Institute (FRI) in Accra to address constraints faced by local farmers. At peak harvesting times, for instance, the market is swamped with fresh produce and much of the harvest rots. Ironically, however, supply problems are still a major constraint if small scale farmers are to profit from their cassava. According to food technologist Dr Nanam Dziedzoave, "When we first started out to create alternative markets for farmers, we realised that the problems were quantity of production, quality of production, and delivery on time." Small-scale processors were not able to supply the quality and quantity of cassava which bigger companies - who could potentially buy excess cassava - demand.

Getting down to business

FRI have developed a method of milling fresh cassava into high quality cassava flour, an end product which not only offers an affordable, locally produced baking ingredient, but has industrial applications. These include demand from the plywood industry, where the flour can be used to bulk up glue. Farmers and processors have been eager to produce the flour, which is sufficiently different from traditional fresh kokonte to secure a niche market. The milling process has been piloted in the village of Watro. Ten women and two men received training in the processing technology, and formed the Enso Nyame Ye group, to secure and manage a loan from the Association of Progressive Entrepreneurs in Development, a local NGO.

Six years later they have progressed from using hand-held graters to owning an attrition mill and processing unit. For Dr Dziedzoave, this demonstrates the future sustainability of the project: "They have seen the potential in the cassava industry and they know that if they invest they will be able to get good returns."

But the success at Watro has not been without effort. Private enterprises were approached to stimulate demand for cassava flour in order to create a market for local suppliers, such as those at Watro. As a result, over one thousand farmers in the regions of Brong Ahafo and Greater Accra supply companies such as Western Veneer. Having carried out trials to improve the viscosity of the glue mix, this plywood production company has now completely replaced imported wheat flour with cassava flour. Amasa Agro-Processing Company Limited, another enterprise directly linked to the community at Watro, is exporting the flour as far afield as South Africa.

Local implications

Washing cassava, Kokofu community, Ghana
Washing cassava, Kokofu community, Ghana
credit: John Esser

Early in 2006, the Minister for food and agriculture in Ghana, Mr Ernest Debrah, stressed the need for the country to further enhance the processing and marketing of cassava. At a workshop organised by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Debrah emphasised the role that cassava can play in alleviating poverty for rural poor communities, especially women who do most of the processing and marketing activities. For many small-scale cassava farmers new markets are opening up. Business is better, not least for farmers from Watro, such as Afia Mansa and Mary Owusuya. "Some of our children are in town, learning a trade like tailoring and hairdressing. It is the cassava that is helping us to support them," they say.

But while Nanam Dziedzoave is optimistic about the future of the cassava industry, he is concerned that policy is not in place to support current initiatives, and stresses the need to create awareness among policymakers to promote the industry. For example, researchers have suggested providing tax rebates or subsidies for end users who incorporate local cassava flour in their products. Dziedzoave emphasises the advantages that such policies could bring: "We are going to have bigger markets, and a regular raw material base for other industries within the African sub region which depend on cassava."

There are, however, some disadvantages to using cassava flour. Gladys Wilson says that more ingredients are needed to obtain good results, and often people are cautious because some cassava contains cyanide compounds. But, she says, "We assure our customers that the grating process removes any harmful materials in the end product." And cassava flour is not only cheaper than using wheat flour but its increasing use is also supporting local agriculture and agro-processing industries. So, despite the lack of a political framework, the cassava industry in Ghana is expanding. For Gladys at least, her baking is in demand, and she is proud to teach others that there is more to cassava than just kokonte.

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1st November 2006