By Kizito Makoye
TONGWE, Tanzania (AlertNet) – Changing weather patterns have forced farmers in Muheza district in Tanzania to move away from growing traditional crops and switch to cassava, which is playing an increasing role in lifting communities out of poverty.
With help from agricultural experts, farmers are learning to cultivate drought-resistant varieties of cassava with enough success that they can feed their family and reap economic dividends from processing and selling their crop surplus.
Over the years, farmers in districts such as Muheza in Tanga, the country’s northernmost coastal region, have been dependent on seasonal rainfall to plant their food and cash crops, which include tea, maize, beans, yams and potatoes.
But worsening persistent drought, which experts believe is associated with climate change, has tightened its grip in eastern parts of Tanzania since 2008, destroying the livelihoods of many poor villagers.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, about 11 of the country’s regions have been severely affected by the drought.
The 2,500 residents of Tongwe village, on the slopes of the Usambara Mountains, have not been spared by the extreme weather. In order to survive, Tongwe’s farmers have abandoned traditional crops and tried growing cassava instead, with help from researchers from Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA).
The crop has turned out to be an unexpected blessing for Tongwe’s villagers, many of whose lives have changed for the better over the past four years despite the ongoing drought.
Mohamed Rajabu, a Tongwe farmer, said that cassava production had transformed his life and that of his family. Despite the drought, he now produces more than enough of the crop to meet his domestic needs.
The starch and protein content of cassava is sufficient to ensure proper nutrition for Rajabu’s family throughout the year, and he can sell the surplus in the form of cassava flour.
The university cassava project aims to improve and scale up cassava production in the eastern zone of Tanzania through the use of existing and improved local technologies. It is being funded by the Norwegian government as part of an agreement with SUA.
Project leader Valerian Silayo said that besides facing climate pressures, farmers in the region often grow crops unsuited to the conditions of particular agro-ecological zones. To help deal with both problems, the project has introduced high-yielding disease-tolerant varieties of cassava to the farmers in Tongwe.
The farmers are instructed in scientific approaches to tackle the diseases that affect the crop, and have been taught to remove and destroy infected cassava in the field by digging out and completely removing the affected plants so they do not infect others.
“Previously we found it very difficult to plant cassava because most of the time the seeds got rotten,” said Elizabeth Paul, a resident of Mikongeni village in Muheza. But now we have been trained to deal with the diseases.”
NEW PRODUCTS, NEW PROFITS
Farmers also have gotten assistance transforming their excess cassava production into products they can sell.
“We help them to improve the quality of cassava products so that they can be sold in cities,” said Silayo. “This will stimulate production of cassava, increase its consumption and improve the purchasing power of the people in the research area.”
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 600 million people depend on cassava in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Cassava grows in tropical conditions, and is mainly cultivated by poor farmers.
With support from SUA, the villagers have built a cassava processing centre in Tongwe, run by the farmers themselves. The centre is equipped with both manual and power-operated chippers and graters, and machines for squeezing water from grated cassava, which helps avoid post-harvest deterioration. The cassava flour is then dried before being sold.
Rajabu is a leader of the Tongwe Farmers Group, whose more than 130 members share the profits from the processing centre’s sales according to the amount of production they have contributed.
“We had organized ourselves to form this group, and I am pleased to say that SUA researchers have immensely assisted us to streamline this business, particularly on scientific ways to get better yields,” Rajabu said.
A kilo of processed cassava flour fetches between 1,500 and 1,800 Tanzanian shillings per kilo (about $0.95 to $1.14) in Dar es Salaam and Tanga, the primary markets for the farmers group, he said. By comparison, maize flour is currently sold at between 800 and 1,000 shillings per kilo (about $0.51 to $0.63).
Before he started growing cassava, Rajabu said he found it increasingly difficult to support his family as a result of poor harvests caused by low rainfall. But growing demand for the new crop now assures him an adequate income, he said.
On his 10-hectare (25-acre) farm, he plants cassava in phases so that he has several harvest seasons.
“The good thing about cassava is that it does not need much water when planting it, so we plant as much as we possibly can,” he said.
As a result of its growing production, the Tongwe Farmers Group recently entered into an agreement with a local supermarket chain, Imalaseko, which will purchase processed cassava at market prices.
The crop has improved Rajabu’s economic security to the point that he has been able to branch out into other businesses as well. He has invested some 3 million shillings (about $1,900) of his profits from cassava sales in a shop which he now owns in Tongwe, supplying villagers with basic supplies such as soap, sugar, plastic utensils, salt and cooking oil.
Kizito Makoye is a Tanzanian journalist based in Dar es Salaam.