Cassava value addition in Africa has offered women farmers another income stream, improving livelihoods and food security, and making them smile, thanks to the United States Agency for International Development-funded project tagged Unleashing the Power of Cassava (UPoCA).
Implemented in seven African countries — Nigeria, DR Congo, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone — by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the project has benefited thousands of farmers in these countries.
Today, the Tongea Women farmers in Sandeyalu community are filled with joy. Located 486 km from Freetown, Sierra Leone, Sandeyalu was once overrun by rebels in 1991. The entire population of nearly 4,000 people took refuge in camps in Kenema where they lived for over 10 years as internally displaced persons (IDPs) until the war was declared over in 2002.
Interactions in the camp brought the Sandeyalu people together to form a formidable association called ‘Tongea women’s development association’ comprising of 54 women and four men. It was named after one of the three mountain peaks overlooking their home township called Tongea.
The group initially raised funds through “coping mechanisms,” such as cutting and selling firewood and soap making as IDPs in Kenema.
With the advent of the IITA-UPoCA project and subsequent inauguration of a microprocessing centre (MPC), cassava is now an added financial window of opportunity to farmers. Incomes from USAID projects such as UPoCA have helped the people of Sandeyalu in rebuilding their community.
Marie Borbor, a member of the Tongea women’s development association, described the IITA-UPoCA intervention and the microprocessing center as a “living bank” in Sandeyalu community.
The United States Ambassador to Sierra Leone, Michael S. Owen, described the transformation at Sandeyalu and the resilience of the Tongea Women as “wonderful.”
Since 2009, IITA-UPoCA scientists have backstopped the Tongea women farmers, opening up more than five hectares of their land for cassava cultivation and distributing over 2,500 bundles of improved cassava varieties to more than 500 cassava farmers.
Braima James, Program Manager, IITA-UPoCA, explained that in March this year, 60 women and 8 men received hands-on training in cassava processing, product development, and packaging in Sandeyalu town.
According to James, this was the most exciting capacity building exercise they had experienced as a group and that the outcome was almost spontaneous.
By this action, the Tongea women had a commercial taste of income from processed cassava roots. But cassava processing in the community market facility carried with it some problems, such as contamination of cassava products by goat and sheep droppings. This prompted the group to start a cassava processing center.
The farmers provided land, unskilled labor, local materials such as timber, bush poles, and mud blocks. This encouraged the IITA-UPoCA to contribute to the project and had the processing center built within three months. Today, farmers in Tongea are happy with their fortunes gradually being turned around for the better.
The success story of IITA-UPoCA is not limited to Sierra Leone alone. It transcends and cuts across other countries such as Nigeria, DR Congo, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania where the project is being implemented.
In Malawi, the project, among other activities revived a moribund starch factory—the first in that country. Besides, thousands of farmers benefited from improved cassava cuttings, training, and capacity building for processors.
The situation in Nigeria was no different as the project linked up processors to farmers for steady production/supply of cassava roots, provided improved cuttings, training and also helped build the capacities of farmers and processors. The scenario played up the same in the other countries.
Consequently, apart from boosting the productivity of cassava in the project areas and maximizing the utilization of the root crop; the project is also promoting food security and improving the incomes of women farmers and processors in particular, and African farmers in general.
As the project winds down in few months, stakeholders are calling on partners and governments to scale up the cassava value chain model to other communities.
“For a country like Sierra Leone which still has deep scars from the civil war, more of such projects are needed to rehabilitate the people and fight poverty,” said Alfred Dixon, Director-General, Sierra Leone Agricultural Research Institute.