By Dele Sobowale
I have directed that henceforth, only cassava bread should be served in government house”.
President Goodluck Jonathan.
As a demonstration of personal preference for cassava bread, the President is in order. And as the transient occupant of Aso Rock, he and Mrs Jonathan can eat whatever they choose. But, it is a grave error to mistake what is a personal preference for a sound national food policy. It is almost certain that cassava bread, as staple in the Presidency, will not outlast Jonathan himself.
Viable agricultural and, particularly, food policies must be based on more than whims and caprices. My experience milling wheat flour and rice would suggest that the shift from wheat to cassava on a national scale is not feasible in the foreseeable future and any attempt to base food policy on it might be at best counter-productive; or, at worst disastrous.
“All life is water” said the Greek philosopher, Thales, 640-540 B.C.
Nigeria, we know is the world’s largest producer of cassava; mainly because Green Revolution techniques developed by Dr Borlaugh, for increased yield of wheat was extended to rice, maize and to some extent cowpeas and cassava. We also know that apart from fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, most new varieties of seedlings developed by the research institutes worldwide perform best when the water supply is controlled. Too much or too little water at critical times would invariably result in low yield or total crop loss. Our control of water supplied to crops is still primitive, for the most part. Nigerian farmers still largely depend on rain-fed agriculture; which is uncontrolled water supply.
Despite our lead in cassava production, we are still far from achieving sufficiency in the product for the basic uses to which Nigerians put the crop. Even now, the price of the product, to the average consumer is still very high. One thing is certain; it has never been considered as a raw material for making bread. Nigeria, like most tropical countries and poor nations, had been contented to leave wheat growing to those countries which have the comparative advantage in growing that crop and whose research and development, as well as water control, place them light years ahead of us in the cultivation of wheat.
Those with long memories will recollect our failed attempt under President Babangida to grow wheat in parts of Northern Nigeria. It ended in dismal failure after consuming millions of naira. In fact resources which should have been used to grow rice or sugar cane or sorghum went into wheat with disastrous results. I was a rice grower and miller at the time.
Bread remains the staff of life for billions of people worldwide and Nigeria as well; and wheat- based products – spaghetti, noodles etc are rapidly becoming another source of wheat based products which constitute our routine diet. Surely, there is hardly any home where they are not now available – especially in homes where there are young kids.
We cling to wheat based products, not necessarily because we like then better than cassava based foods, but because they are actually often cheaper and more convenient to prepare and serve. But, price is key to the preference we have demonstrated for those food items. The question is why? And what would be the consequences to Nigeria if the massive shift to cassava bread, which government is promoting, succeeds.
Perhaps, two reasons account for the price advantage enjoyed by wheat based products. First, is the low yield per hectare of Nigerian cassava compared to the yield of wheat in the nations producing the largest quantities of the crop. Second, farmers in all leading wheat growing countries are heavily subsidized by their governments; whereas our farmers do not enjoy any support; not for maize, or rice and certainly not for cassava. Subsidised fertilizer, like fuel subsidy, has been a long-standing fraud by government officials. Consequently, the price of cassava is also correspondingly high compared with wheat. Obviously, if the price of cassava is higher than that of wheat, the price of cassava bread will also be higher than that of wheat bread.
However, price is not the only impediment standing between us and the change to cassava bread on a massive scale. There are several other problems which have to be overcome before we arrive at our destination. The Minister of Agriculture, who introduced the product to President Jonathan, as well as the UTC Plc which is acting as the technical partner, have probably failed to fully inform Jonathan about the fine details – which are vital for success.
None of our existing flour mills are equipped to mill cassava; they mill wheat, and with slight modifications, they might mill other grains (rice, sorghum etc). Cassava on the other hand is a tuber and the process of turning it to flour is quite different from that of grains. To get existing mills to produce cassava flour, everything from silos to conveyor belts will have to be replaced or modified. In short, we will have to build new mills to produce cassava bread on the same scale as we produce wheat flour now. The cost will run into trillions of naira.
Furthermore, cassava flour is not ideally suited for bread making; for that matter not all types of wheat are suitable for bread baking. That is why certain types of wheat flour are used for biscuits, cakes, etc. Cassava flour without glutamine would yield a brittle kind of loaf which crumbles easily, cannot be sliced and certainly unfit for sandwiches. Given the massive amount of bread consumed in this nation of 160 million people, we will either have to invest heavily in glutamine factories or import millions of tones of it. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has addressed this critical issue.
It is all well and good for UTC to carry out a pilot project; bring in the glutamine; produce the nice tasting bread and serve to the President – very hot. But, it amounts to dishonesty not to acknowledge the process which produced the bread or to pretend that any Nigerian bakery can adapt to cassava flour. Nothing can be further from the truth. In fact giving someone cold cassava bread would almost amount to giving the child who asked for bread stone according to the Biblical story. It becomes that hard and solid and so cassava bread cannot be preserved for long without further additives.
The typical Nigerian bakery is designed to bake conventional bread using wheat flour. In order to adapt to cassava flour, majour changes would have to be made; all the staff would have to be trained and the cost structure would have to be reconsidered. This is a monumental undertaking requiring several years of planning – if the entire initiative is not going to end up in fiasco; leaving us at a greater disadvantage than when we started.
But, the main obstacle is still the production of cassava in sufficient quantities to replace the massive wheat import. Diversion of cassava on such a massive scale to bread making, without any alternative tuber or grain to fill the gap, will disrupt the food chain of most Nigerians and create hardship until such a time as the country is able to produce surplus cassava.
Unfortunately, massive increase in cassava production is not feasible at the moment. Most of the nation’s irrigation systems which can provide some measure of controlled water supply have broken down. For instance the Goronyo Fadama dam in Sokoto state which collapsed two years ago is still not functioning; the Bakolori dam project in Zamfara state is also in a state of disrepair, Kainji dam is suffering from water shortage etc. One thing the SURE document circulated by the Federal Minister of Finance, before it became clear, even to her, that there was no subsidy, only fraud, was that it listed some of the dams needing repairs.
However, even when they operated optimally, the nation was still incapable of growing enough cassava as to make it “dirt cheap”. One of the basic strengths of the United States, Canada and the major wheat producers lies in the fact that they have so much capacity to produce they even keep million of hectares out of cultivation. Nigeria is so far from that stage of development such that it will be futile to attempt the conversion now.
If our capacity to produce sufficient cassava in the short term – defined as five years – is not enough reason to shelve the idea for now; the widespread violence in the North – code named Boko Haram – is certain to result in massive food shortage next year. With over 75% of the nation’s agricultural land in the north; and, with the largest food producers under siege, it is unlikely that the harvest next year will be anywhere near anything we have experienced in the past.
Not only will productivity be lower; post harvest losses will escalate as farmers have continued to abandon farms and run for cover. The shake-up in the top levels of security officers will not have an immediate impact; and even if it does, those fleeing for their lives will not be in a hurry to return. Instead of a cassava surplus, shortage of cassava, as well, as other food items, seems more imminent. When general food crisis occurs, people tend to consume more carbohydrates than proteins because the latter is more expensive. So the pressure on cassava and yams will be more intense. There will be no surplus for bread.
At the risk of being labeled prophet of doom, there is another variable to ponder. Climate change and the record level rainfall expected this year. In most places, especially areas benefitting from irrigation, the debris from last year’ destruction have not yet been fully cleared and we are into another year of heavy torrential downpours. Even the greatest optimist will have to admit that the near term is not hopeful. There will be water quite alright and it will even be plentiful. But, it will neither be controllable nor controlled. So we are at the mercy of nature for the year 2012 and the harvest for 2013.
The Minister of Agriculture deserves a great deal of credit for being the only one in the cabinet of President Jonathan drawing attention to the looming food crisis – famine really. He also should be commended for the initiative designed to reduce our unsustainable food import bill — especially as the price of crude oil keeps dropping.
God knows we need the relief that lower food import bill will provide for this country, particularly if it means we can increase our food output and move towards self-sufficiency. But, cassava bread is an idea whose time has not yet arrived; and will not arrive until we have cassava virtually littering the roads of Nigeria. In addition to that, we need to work out all the technical details and be sure that we can afford the cost of conversion of our mills and bakeries nationwide. Otherwise, we will end up with no bread at all – cassava or wheat.