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Cassava development in the networking age

Long considered a crop of the poor in Latin America, cassava is finding new markets (Clayuca-CIAT)
Long considered a crop of the poor in Latin America, cassava is finding new markets

The first decade of the 21st century has spawned social networking websites, blogging and tweeting, and the idea that strong networks make strong communities. The importance of networks has been demonstrated over the course of the decade by Clayuca, the Latin American and Caribbean Consortium to Support Cassava Research and Development. Now in its 11th year, Clayuca is still expanding its efforts at connecting partners into new and more challenging countries.

Cassava originated in the forests of Latin America and has remained a staple food in the region for thousands of years, but in the modern era it has seldom been a crop of high commercial priority. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia tried to drive the development of a cassava industry in the 1980s by introducing improved production and processing technologies and higher yielding varieties, but this development faltered when massive imports of cheap maize began flooding the market. In 1999, CIAT began a new approach with Clayuca.

Agroindustrial matchmakers

Clayuca was a new type of organisation, existing to create links between all actors, public or private, with an interest in cassava. Now entering its second decade, the consortium has developed no new technologies, built no infrastructure, and given farmers no material inputs. Nonetheless, it has transformed the cassava sectors of several countries. Its success has been to introduce producers to processors, NGOs to scientists, and cooperatives to exporters. Clayuca now extends its networks to 11 countries in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

Clayuca and its members have been buoyed by a reversal in the global glut of cheap maize. With ethanol fuel producers scooping up maize surpluses since 2005, other buyers returned to the marketplace for alternatives. Cassava was in a competitive position again. The rapid coordination to take advantage of this shift has been Clayuca's challenge.

In Costa Rica, mechanised farming has been introduced (Clayuca-CIAT)
In Costa Rica, mechanised farming has been introduced

Central American frontiers

Cassava has a versatile root which can be sold fresh or frozen, milled into flour, mixed with animal feed or processed into starch and ethanol. Two of Clayuca's newer member countries, Costa Rica and Panama, have explored different paths. In Costa Rica the export potential of fresh and frozen roots to the United States had been tested by a few entrepreneurs, but the sector was underdeveloped. When Clayuca offered to bring producers into the development effort, the response was so great that Costa Ricans formed their own chapter of the organisation. As a result, improved germplasm has been evaluated, mechanised farming has been introduced, and knowledge, skills and information flow freely.

One unlikely member of Clayuca-CR is Hans Homberger, manager of a cardboard box plant. His aim is to replace Mexican maize starch, used in box glue, with a cassava alternative. It was Hans's father-in-law who spent his life researching the potential of cassava, and established contact with Bernardo Ospina, executive director of Clayuca at CIAT, while working in Nicaragua. "After my father-in-law died," Hans recounts, "I inherited his work papers and Bernardo's email was on his agenda right before he passed away. I decided to contact him to evaluate the feasibility of a glue plant. By mere coincidence, Bernardo had planned a trip to Costa Rica and we were able to meet to talk about cassava."

These sorts of chance encounters are the stuff strong networks are made of, and Clayuca exists to make them happen. Through the consortium Hans has come to know actors such as the farmer and processor Edvin Rojas. A founder of Clayuca-CR, Rojas is constantly identifying and validating technologies to make the country's cassava sector more competitive. While working on glue, Hans too has now ventured into root production. Leftover parts of roots from food production can be used for glue starch, but better suited are special high-starch varieties, some of which have been developed by CIAT and transferred to Clayuca-CR for evaluation trials.


After drying in the sun, cassava chips can be milled into flour or added to animal feed (Clayuca-CIAT)
After drying in the sun, cassava chips can be milled into flour or added to animal feed

In Panama, five entrepreneurs from different sectors decided to explore the potential of the country's small cassava crop. As in Costa Rica, they opted to create their own autonomous partnership, Panayuca, with Clayuca's matchmaking help. Historically, Panamanian cassava production has been largely for local consumption, with only a small and expensive supply reaching urban markets. Panayuca aims to establish a starch factory to replace imported starches and glucose with domestic supplies.

With few cooperatives dealing in the "poor man's crop" of cassava, the Panamanian Association of Medium and Small Farmers were invited to participate as stakeholders and own shares in the factory. Among other roles they will be involved in finding the right germplasm from CIAT's gene bank, with the focus shifting from yield to local suitability. During the process, which has been going on for almost a year, Clayuca has been acting as a technology provider, catalyst and promoter. The hope is to give farmers a stable new market along with new production technologies, and for the boost to spill over into urban food markets.

Written by: T. Paul Cox

Date published: May 2010


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