January 27, 2012

Africa needs ‘local content’ in diets

Africa needs to rethink its food import burden and consider ‘local content’ options, such as the inclusion of cassava flour in wheat to reduce the rising import bills, says the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture’s Ambassador, Former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

The IITA Ambassador views the ‘local content’ option as part of efforts to free up resources for infrastructural development and poverty alleviation in the continent.

In 2011, estimates show that Africa spent more than $50 billion on food imports. The rising prices of food does not make the situation better in the years ahead, according to Dr. Akin Adesina, Nigeria’s Agriculture Minister who is also an economist.

“If we want to develop, we must change our consumption habits. We must consume what is our own, what is around us in Africa. In this way, we will be able to make progress,” Obasanjo added.

As the President of Nigeria between 1999 and 2007, Obasanjo promoted a 10 percent cassava inclusion policy in wheat bread in an effort to promote agricultural growth and diversify the economy.

The policy, backed by improved agricultural practices from IITA and national partners, increased cassava production in Nigeria by 10 million tons within 6 years, making Nigeria the world’s top producer of cassava.

Building on that success, researchers from IITA, working in a pilot bakery, have raised cassava content in bread to 40 percent without compromising quality. Upon tasting the 40 percent cassava bread, Obasanjo exclaimed, “The taste is good! “We need to promote it to make people adopt and consume it,” he said.

Besides relieving the burden on food imports, the adoption of cassava flour offers several benefits to Africa. It promises to make cassava competitive by creating markets for the root crop and offering fair prices to farmers.

With climate change taking a negative toll on most grains, cassava production is fast becoming an option. The crop’s tolerance of extreme weather such as drought and its ability to thrive on poor soils are increasing its appeal.

In Nigeria, for instance, the government estimates that the 40 percent inclusion of cassava flour in wheat bread could help the country save about N254 billion ($1.7 billion) annually.

“But more than savings, this will also provide jobs for our youths,” said Adesina.