The inclusive business potential of Cassava in Zambia

Zambia is so endowed with natural resources that the entire population has the potential to prosper if it is well harnessed. The agriculture potential in Zambia is so massive with over 47% of our land (752,612 km2) being arable and currently only about 15% of this land is in use. Our successive development plans, including the current sixth national development plan, always show potential to transform lives of Zambians. Zambia’s location has the potential …….. Wait a minute. In the midst of such potential what do we have to show for it? Poverty above 60% depending on whose statistics you look at. Only about 20% GDP is contributed by the agriculture sector and 33% by industry, the rest being services. Surely such statistics don’t say much about our potential.

At the risk of seemingly manifesting the ‘potential syndrome’, as alluded to already, let me talk about the potential of one common crop in Zambia. Despite experts’ view that it’s so nutritionally deficient and would lead to forms of malnutrition, my ancestors would argue that it served them well and has factually enabled the sustenance of entire populations especially in Luapula, Northern, Western and North-western provinces. While support to maize by successive governments and other development actors has been constant even against economic sense, little support has been accorded to this crop, and it’s a wonder it’s still grown at all. This may be largely explained by the strength of local cultural food tastes combined with the crops resilience to grow even in sub-optimal conditions with near zero investment. Yet, its potential and especially industrial potential can simply not be ignored.

You would have guessed by now that I am talking about Cassava. Cassava contains 25% and 40% more carbohydrates than maize and rice respectively with the result that it could be the cheapest source of calories for humans as well as animals feeding. Cassava is the second most important food crop (after maize) in Zambia. It is grown by up to 30% of the total smallholder population. Over 90% of the 4.5 million MT (accuracy or lack of, in cassava production measurement is a topic for another day) produced in the 2010/2011 season was used for household consumption. Human consumption is however limited mostly to the producing households as storage technology and proximity to the food processing centres are major limiting factors. I can almost picture scores of women, back in Kalabo, about 670km from urban centres, soaking fresh cassava tubers in ‘matindi’ where the risk of failure to even locate it seven days later is real. Meanwhile, the availability of ‘cheap’ subsidized maize on the market makes cassava substitution for maize in feed mills economically unattractive though technically proven. Cassava could be used for several industrial applications. Starch is a multi-billion dollar worldwide business that finds application in several industries. Starch could also be converted into several sugars such as maltose, glucose and other modified sugars and organic acids with industrial uses (Tan et al. 1984). The use of cassava as a source of ethanol for fuel is already being exploited and is very promising.

While all this potential is a given, what remains to be seen is how long it will take for the transition from potential to action and for the benefits of this crop to be acknowledged. Most recently, local media reports stated that Zambian Breweries has opened a processing facility in Ndola where a cassava-based lager will be manufactured thereby providing a lot of supply opportunities to hundreds of smallholder cassava producers. This is a good development to the cassava industry. Yet we still need the focus and actions of even more industrial actors and enablers, especially government, to provide the necessary ‘pull and push’ policy influence to move the cassava value chain to the next level. Without such focus and enabling policy environment, the cassava potential may remain just that. potential.

Mpulu Makayi
Mpulu Makayi
Enterprising solutions for smallholder farmers across Zambia.

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