Building a strong distribution model for cassava seed in Tanzania

Shaban Bisaki, a certified seed entrepreneur, holds a cassava root from his seed multiplication business in Kigoma.

Cassava has long been a major food source in many African nations.

But changing rainfall patterns and lack of access to quality seed stock of the starchy brown root has led to the spread of diseases that threaten to wipe out crops.

Stephen Magige

Over the past nine years, MEDA has worked to strengthen the cassava seed system in Tanzania. 

A four-year pilot program was followed by the five-year BEST (Building an Economically Sustainable Seed System for Cassava in Tanzania) project.

MEDA is continuing that work through the Building an Economically Sustainable and Integrated Cassava Seed System Phase II (BASICS- II) project.

BASICS- II started in Nigeria in 2020 as a five-year, $14.3 million US effort funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Tanzania portion of the project, which MEDA is a sub-contractor on, is just over $2.5 million US.

MEDA’s work will run for three years, until the end of 2025.

“We’ll be operating in 11 regions of Tanzania, the same regions that BEST Cassava was operating in,” said Stephen Magige, MEDA’s country project manager for the project.

Cassava is an important crop for food security in Tanzania, especially for areas that do not get a lot of rain, he said. “It’s a crop that can handle climatic changes, because other crops like maize cannot persist when there is either too much rainfall or not enough rainfall.”

While cassava is the second-most important crop in Tanzania after maize, its market share is increasing, with more people growing and consuming it, he said. “In the previous years, cassava was perceived as a poor man’s crop, but then the status changed to become an important food security and income-generating crop.”

Deals have been signed to export cassava to China.

MEDA is promoting 10 varieties of cassava that are resistant to several diseases that can cost growers 80-100 percent of their crops.

The nature of the cassava crop poses challenges, given the bulk and perishability of the “seeds” used to propagate new plants, as well as susceptibility to disease. 

The “seeds” refer to cuttings of stems that can be cut and planted, similar to seed potatoes.

Gidion Shango cuts off a stem of a cassava plant

The project is working to promote varieties that can withstand disease, as well as a sustainable distribution model for entrepreneurs that will help farmers access certified planting materials when they need them, and at an affordable price.

In the past, government policies of occasionally distributing planting materials for free, and the farming culture led to unsustainable distribution practices and de-motivated entrepreneurs.

Governments used to distribute free plant material frequently to support its goal of food security.

“People are not used to buying cassava planting material. People used to get the planting material from their neighbors, their relatives for free.”

But free distribution of inferior varieties often led to the spread of disease. Fields are small and close together, so the chance for infection is large.

MEDA has trained business-minded farmers on sustainable cassava growing practices, so they can produce and sell disease-resistant varieties to other farmers. The cassava varieties being promoted did well in different ecological zones (rainfall amounts and soil types).

MEDA has also used a demonstration plot to show the superiority of the varieties being promoted.

MEDA works to encourage governments to source plant materials from seed entrepreneurs and distribute these materials only in places where there are not seed entrepreneurs.

The long-term strategy is to have all cassava seeds sold.

This model is being tried in other countries. Pilots are underway in Kenya, as well as Rwanda, Burundi, and other areas of Tanza- nia where MEDA is not working.

 In Tanzania, MEDA is working to increase participation of women throughout the industry’s cassava seed chain. 

Besides helping to grow cassava, women process cassava into flour, which is used to prepare porridge. They also sell the product in the fresh market.

MEDA aims to increase the number of women in seed production, which can be more profitable.

Producing plants that can be used for cuttings to propagate new plants can provide proceeds of between $800 and $1,000 an acre for entrepreneurs who plant at least four acres.

It can take nine to 12 months to get a harvest, whereas some other crops can be planted and harvested several times in a year. Most of the investment is required in the first year, as one crop will provide the seeds for the next planting.

MEDA currently has 600 seed entrepreneurs working in 11 regions.

Priorities in the next three years are to provide training and support for the current network of cassava seed entrepreneurs. MEDA is also working to build capacity for the supporting structure of a system where others will help to sustain this work after the current project ends.

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