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#TravelBlog: Michael White roots out cassava


We arrived in Mwanza in the morning – my arrival in Dar es Salaam was the night before (and our departure from Dar was in the dark too).

The locals have dubbed Mwanza, “Rock City” due to the sizeable granite boulders that seem to emerge from the ground. Some of them are precariously balanced on small boulders. One could liken them to naturally formed inukshuks (Inuit cairn).

Mwanza is a mid-sized port city on the southern shores of Lake Victoria in northwestern Tanzania. After Dar es Salaam, Mwanza is the country’s largest city.

I am here in Tanzania to visit MEDA’s BEST (Building an Economically Sustainable Seed System in Tanzania for Cassava) Cassava and SSBVC (Strengthening Small Business Value Chains) projects to learn first-hand the impact MEDA is having on the ground.

If you like potatoes, odds are you will like cassava, a starchy root vegetable used much like potatoes. You can boil it, process it into flour, tapioca or starch; slice it thinly and fry it in oil for chips (known as crisps here) or you can puree it into a thick porridge called ugali.

Cassava is a common staple food in many households here, and a consistent source of food due to its hardy nature and ability to weather droughts. This tough root can be left in the ground for up to 12 or 18 months and still be fresh!

Like potatoes, cassava doesn’t propagate seeds; instead, you plant a six-inch cutting of the stem (which they call a seed). Each plant will yield 6-10 cuttings, and you can take the cuttings for two successive seasons. Although you don’t get the multiplication factor that you do from seed crops like wheat, rice or corn, cassava is a nutritious and hardy root rich in nutrients that can grow in difficult environments.

Although this is a hardy root, it is still prone to disease. Diseases are spread through the unfortunately named white fly (no relation). One diseased cutting will carry the disease to the next round of plantings, so the cycle is perpetuated – threating the farmer’s livelihood.

Fortunately, there are many varieties of cassava. IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture), a Tanzanian agency that is transforming African agriculture, has been testing the top five varieties of cassava from various regions and countries in Africa. They have identified several varieties that are more disease and drought resistant, as well as better tasting!

IITA’s goal is to lift 11.5 million people out of poverty and revitalize 7.5 million hectares of farmland by 2020. Through their commitment to providing solutions to hunger, poverty and the degradation of natural resources, IITA seemed like a great partner for our BEST Cassava project.

The agency has a technical and lengthy process that takes many seed cycles to isolate disease-free stock, grow it to maturity and start multiplying for production.

BEST Cassava comes in when the seed stock is released and certified by IITA. BEST aims to build a self-sustaining economic system that encourages top-level entrepreneurs to plant three acres of seed stock. This stock is then sold to farmers, who buy it because of its improved quality and yield.

These entrepreneurs must be certified by a government inspection agency called TOSCI (Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute) which decrees that they must keep a minimum 150-meter cassava-free border around their certified field to prevent re-infection. This border area can be used for other crops like beans or corn.

Since its inception, BEST Cassava, in partnership with IITA, has increased farmers’ incomes by over $1,000 a year – an income that is transformative for families.

Over the course of this project, we hope to impact over 60,000 farmers and help them add $100 million a year to the Tanzanian economy. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is pleased with the progress of the project and is seeing a great return on their investment.

After our project is complete, the cassava-growing enterprises should continue for years.

I came away from this experience with a deep sense of respect for the farmers, entrepreneurs and agricultural researchers in Tanzania. I met incredible people during this trip. It was a privilege to hear their stories and learn from their expertise.

Although I’m no cassava expert, I now know a thing or two.

Hear from Michael next week about his time learning from SSBVC!

Michael joined MEDA as the Chief Strategic Engagement Officer in April, 2017. He has held both not for profit and private sector roles of increasing responsibility at World Vision and in the high-tech industry. Michael visited MEDA projects BEST Cassava and SSBVC in the beginning of October.

Samantha Nutt: doctor, humanitarian & author
MEDA on the move!

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