Over half a billion people around the world depend on cassava as a major food source. Nicknamed “the bread of the tropics,” the nutrient-rich root is relatively unused in more temperate climates.
Almost all consumption occurs, as the crop’s nickname suggests, in tropical countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In such countries, it is the third largest source of calories after rice and corn. Its ability to grow well in poor soils and withstand drought make it an ideal crop to cultivate in places where other crops struggle.
Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava, and the crop thrives in its soils. Despite Nigeria’s position as the top producer, the country’s ability to process cassava is very limited. Processing offers not just the ability to produce higher-value, exportable cassava-derived items like tapioca, but also essential items like glucose which Nigeria spends millions each year importing. In second-largest producer Thailand, cassava is more of a cash crop than a staple, with the vast majority of the root being processed and exported. Although the nature of the cassava industries in the two countries is inherently different due to differences in the crop’s purpose, the Southeast Asian country still has valuable lessons to offer Nigeria.
Cassava’s origins trace back to South America, and the crop made its transatlantic journey close to the beginning of the slave trade in the sixteenth century. But it would take several centuries for the crop to reach its current status as a premier, staple food in Nigeria.
In the first two decades following Nigerian independence in 1960, the new government focused on crops like rice and wheat, subsidizing their import as well as their production through farmer support programs. Cassava, however, was largely excluded from such government extension programs.
In the 1980s, a glut of crude oil drove its price downward, reducing earnings for export-dependent Nigeria. In response, the government placed growing restrictions and tariffs on imports, including agricultural goods. In 1987 a ban on wheat imports was put in place, which was eventually lifted in 1991. The import restrictions drove up cassava demand, as well as production—which grew by 36 percent in the period between 1980-1990.
This growth helped Nigeria overtake Brazil as the top producer of cassava. It is is now Nigeria’s largest crop in terms of quantity, and the second largest in terms of value.
Cassava, like almost every other crop in Nigerian agriculture is dominated by smallholder farmers, who are responsible for 90 percent of its production.
Most Nigerian cassava is produced across the country’s southern and central regions. Cross River, Nigeria’s southwestern- most state, had the highest level of production at 5 million tonnes in 2012. Kogi, to the east, produced 4.4 million tonnes. The third-largest producer, Benue, produced 3.7 million tonnes in 2012. In these regions, cassava is a central part of life, accounting for 40-50 percent of all consumed calories.
Production in all of these states and Nigeria as a whole has boomed over the past decade. The country went from harvesting 36 million tonnes of the tuber in 2003 to 53 million in 2013, a 47 percent increase. Growth was driven by a substantial increase in yields—which jumped by 44 percent over this period.
The Presidential Initiative on Cassava, which ran from 2002-2007, was a major factor contributing to the yield increase. The broad objectives of the initiative were to increase the amount of land dedicated to cassava, boost production, and encourage exports of processed cassava products. Although the program did not reach its targets in overall production or exports, its practice of distributing improved, disease-resistant seed varieties did help boost yields. An evaluation by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in a concurrent initiative found that farmers involved in the two programs harvested more than double per area compared to those that did not participate.
Still, yields in Nigeria are far below those of other major cassava producers. Even in Thailand, where farmers are also smallholders, yields are 150 percent higher than they are in Nigeria - 21.8 tonnes/hectare compared to 13.9 tonnes/hectare, respectively.
About 70 percent of Nigeria’s cassava is turned into garri—a granular flour that is used mainly to make porridges and fufu (a type of mash). Processing cassava into garri is relatively simple—it requires only that cassava roots are peeled, grated, and sieved, and then placed in a porous bag from which excess water can be squeezed out. The resulting dry flour can be stored for several months.
When left unprocessed, however, cassava roots perish very quickly, often spoiling within 48 hours. The limited access that farmers have not only to efficient large-scale processors, but also to storage facilities and reliable transportation compounds the problem presented by the crop’s perishability. As a result, post-harvest losses for cassava are high. According to estimates by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), they amount to more than $600 million in Nigeria alone.
Approximately 70 percent of cassava processing occurs at small and medium size centers near villages. In 2012, there were 75,000 total small and medium processing centers that employed roughly 3 million people—most of which were small scale and generated less than 5 tonnes of high-quality cassava flour per day. Medium and large-scale processors struggle to stay afloat due to high transportation costs, mainly due to the poor condition of rural Nigerian roads. As a result, these larger processors tend to operate far below their capacity, as product struggles to reach processing plants within its two-day shelf-life. The government, as a part of its efforts to strengthen cassava value chains, has announced its intention to set up several large-scale, commercial plants across the country. But without improvements to roads and other critical aspects of market access, it is unclear what kind of an impact such plants might have.
In an attempt to support the cassava processing industry, the government launched the Cassava Transformation Agenda in 2011. The initiative is working to increase the demand for cassava flour and reduce the demand for wheat—the import of which costs the country about $1.5 billion each year. The demand increase will be driven by a mandate requiring bakers to mix high quality cassava flour (HQCF) with wheat flour when making bread. Initially, bread flour will have to be 10 percent cassava flour, but this proportion is slated to grow over time. Bakeries that meet the government’s target in displacing a proportion of their wheat flour with cassava have been promised a 12 percent tax rebate.
The initiative has faced several challenges in implementation. Bakers are concerned about the feasibility of the targets on cassava flour use in bread, particularly given the uncertain quality level of supplies.
When the 10 percent HQCF inclusion policy came into action, it created a demand of at least 300,000 tonnes for the flour. Yet the country’s annual commercial capacity was just 36,000 tonnes . New processing plants are being established across Nigeria, but these additional processors will only add 222,000 – 432,000 tonnes of capacity. If the HQCF blending requirement is to eventually be increased to 40 percent, as some sources suggest, demand will be close to 1.2 million tonnes.
The limitedness of Nigeria’s processing capacity means that the country’s role in international trade is similarly limited, as cassava needs to be processed in order to be exported. In 2013 Nigeria exported just 509 tonnes of cassava products, half of which went to China, the world’s top importer.However, that same year, the government signed a deal with China to begin exporting 3.2 million tonnes of cassava chips to the superpower. It is not yet clear as to when Nigeria will reach that target.
In Thailand, about 90 percent of all cassava is processed and exported. In 2013, when Thailand’s production was almost 20 million tonnes less than that of Nigeria, the Southeast Asian nation exported $2.6 billion worth of dried cassava and cassava starches—compared to Nigeria’s international earnings of around $2 million. Thailand accounted for approximately 76 percent of global trade and 84 percent of its cassava exports were sent to China, where the products are largely used for ethanol production.
Though like in Nigeria, most of Thailand’s production is carried out by smallholders. Roughly 2.6 million farmers work 1.2 million hectares to produce 30 million tonnes of cassava. The value chains that exist around Thai farmers are much more developed.
At the farm level, Thai producers have better access to fertilizer, irrigation, and mechanized equipment than their Nigerian counterparts. About 90 percent of these farmers also plant higher-yielding, improved seed varieties. Once harvested, almost all cassava is quickly processed within the two day rot window, and the country’s spoilage rates are so low that they are negligible. The speed with which fresh roots can be harvested, collected, and processed is indicative of a well coordinated value chain. In fact, throughout the entire harvesting and processing period, value chain losses amount to just 2.5 percent—70 percent of which occur on-farm when cassava tubers are harvested accidentally or are broken by mechanical equipment.
Much of the success of Thailand’s cassava is rooted in the government’s continued support of the industry. They first began investing in cassava processing in the mid 1990s with support from Japanese corporations. And very importantly, Thailand prioritized producing high-value cassava products. It is one of the only countries that is seriously processing modified cassava starch, which is a much more technical process than producing regular starch. Starch development is a complex process which first requires the production of cassava flour, from which starch is extracted using centrifuges and flash driers. From here the starches can also be modified for industrial and specialized purposes, as cassava starch is used widely in food production as an emulsifier, binder, stabilizer, and thickener.
The early, significant investment, coupled with Thailand’s naturally advantageous growing conditions, allows harvesting to take place year-round. Processors in other countries must shut down operations for up to four months due to lack of supplies. This has led to Thailand’s dominant 70 percent control of global cassava starch trade. Interestingly, Nigeria also has similarly ideal, year-round harvesting abilities—a fact which bodes well for its production potential.
The Thai government contributed more than $2 billion in cassava subsidies over the first ten years of this century in order to make the finished products especially competitive on the international market. Thailand has also negotiated advantageous trade deals, such as the removal of a six percent tariff on cassava products heading to China, representing a savings of over $100 million. The success of any cassava producing country will likely rest on the existence of a similarly aggressive and willful government that prioritizes the crop.
Thailand’s position as the global leader in cassava processing and exporting demonstrates the incredible amount of untapped potential that lays waiting in Nigeria. The West African country has already proven success in improving raw cassava production through its increase in yields and it now needs to extend these successes throughout the value chain. A cohesive strategy that links the efforts of farmers and processors will be essential. Processing capacity is being increased to ramp up HQCF production, but without effective coordination with and connection to farmers, it is likely that undersupply and spoilage will continue to be obstacles.
Nigeria’s emergence in the international cassava market or even self-sufficiency in flour production is not out of reach. If the country can follow Thailand’s example and cultivate a strong value chain and processing sector, the rewards could be impressive.