VIOLET MENGO, Lusaka
CHIEF Chitambo of the Lala people of Serenje district has been growing cassava for a long time, enough for his own consumption and for sale.
But there is one problem – access to the market for his produce. It has been a major concern for him.
â€œWe need a ready market for cassava because we grow a lot of the crop here. We donâ€™t know where to sell it; sometimes it goes to waste due to prolonged storage,â€ the traditional leader said.
He wants Government to render the same support to cassava and other crops as it does to maize.
Fortunately for him, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) is addressing the issue through the Federation of National Association of Women in Business in Eastern and Southern Africa (FEMCOM).
Launched in 2011, the cassava cluster programme aims at enhancing economic growth in the region, and promote value addition.
â€œUp to now in the region, cassava has had no value chain as it has only been used for consumption resulting in the prices being very low,â€ COMESA secretary general Sindiso Ngwenya said.
In 2013, leaders of COMESA member states instructed the secretariat to upscale the implementation of the cassava cluster, having realised that cassava could turn around the economic status of the people and the economies of the region.
Mr Ngwenya thinks it is an indictment for a region that has so much potential to be importing starch and mott of up to US$254 million, going by the figures of 2010.
Put in the local context, First Quantum Minerals, a mining firm operating in Zambia, imports up to 12,000 tonnes of cassava from Australia for usage in copper smelting.
The current production of cassava in the COMESA region is estimated at 28 million metric tonnes.
Mr Ngwenya wants the situation to change for the better.
â€œAs a cluster, cassava has an ability to enter diverse industries such as paper products, wood-processing, artificial sweeteners, ethanol and other manufactured goods. It offers a third potential market,â€ the secretary general said.
Cassava has a lot of potential in terms of the global market. For example, the European Union imports more than two million tonnes of cassava annually.
In developing countries like Zambia, cassava is a major staple food, providing a basic diet for over half a billion people. Therefore, the fears that it might compromise food security are unfounded.
On its part, FEMCOM has been mandated to facilitate the implementation of the cassava cluster and link it to the textile and garment cluster within the COMESA region.
â€œThe cassava cluster is being implemented in 10 member states and we are appreciative of the fact that the EU provided funding to COMESA for the project to be advanced in the region,â€ FEMCOM executive director Katherine Ichoya explained.
FEMCOM has been spearheading the implementation of the cassava cluster throughout the region by providing support to all the various stakeholders in the value chain.
Cluster Development Expert for agro-processing Angela Mulenga believes the programme is critical to poverty reduction.
â€œThe cassava cluster project is a very important programme to COMESA and the region for the improvement of the lives of cassava farmers, processors and those engaged in export,â€ she says.
COMESA has supported the cassava farmers in Zambia with various management and land preparation skills in Petauke, Mansa and Serenje districts.
The activities that are being implemented link the farmers to the market both locally and regionally.
â€œWe have found a market in DRC [Democratic republic of Congo]; and locally we have identified markets for the farmers in industries that apply cassava starch in the paper industry, wood industry and in the bakery industry in Ndola,â€ Ms Mulenga says.
The Ndola factory produces cassava-wheatbiscuits which have been appreciated by consumers because the taste and flavour is very different and has more nutrients.
Cassava Association of Zambia (CAZ) chairperson Bright Mwaungulu is appreciative of the training undertaken by COMESA for farmers in Mansa, Serenje and other parts of the country.
â€œWe have also been assisted with equipment aimed at enhancing value addition to the crop,â€ Mr Mwaungulu said, pointing to areas such as the production of flour for cakes and chips.
According to available scientific data, cassava can also be used in pharmaceutical production and breweries for the production of alcoholic beverages, paper and glue, in addition to being used as animal feed.
However, the cassava cluster has not been fully successful due to various constraints.
â€œMost farmers have complained of the poor seed varieties that have caused them to abandon planting the crop owing to a lack of government support,â€ Ms Mulenga said.
The sustainability of the cassava clusters has been a challenge because the crop has not been fully accepted in various parts of the region.
Experts also point out to the small-scale fragmentation of supply and poorly organised markets characterised by inconsistent supply and quality, poor technologies for high yielding production and processing systems.
This leads to monopoly by some traders as they take advantage of smallholder farmers.
Still, the programme has a huge potential to lift farmers out of poverty but only if well harnessed.
It is the reason Chief Chitambo is happy with the programme.
â€œWe are very happy with COMESA and the Ministry of Agriculture for bringing us the cassava cluster project and training farmers,â€ he said, of the programme which was born after the 2013 COMESA heads of state and government meeting in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Recently, President Lungu commissioned the construction of a cassava ethanol production plant in Kawambwa, which will provide a ready and sustainable market for cassava farmers.
Cassava production and trading is steadily becoming a lucrative business, and worth giving a try.
VIOLET MENGO, Lusaka