No single crop defines the Nigerian agriculture sector more than cassava. The nation is the world’s largest producer of this root vegetable. Yet despite its proficiency in production, Nigeria has not been able to turn this position into a substantial revenue generator. However, efforts to capitalise on this competitive advantage speak to renewed optimism in the sector.
In many ways, cassava is the standout crop in Nigeria’s agricultural industry. In 2013 the country accounted for approximately one-fifth of total global production of the crop, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB). Indeed, local output exceeds its nearest rival by some distance: in 2013 Nigeria grew over 30% more cassava than Thailand, the second-largest global producer.
Despite this proficiency, Nigeria is still falling well short in terms of the potential benefits it can gain from this crop. According to the AfDB, the total value of Nigerian production was estimated at $16bn in 2013, but the country was able to generate only $1m in export revenue from the crop.
This is the result of several factors. First, non-commercial farmers dominate the local industry, with 6m smallholders growing cassava in Nigeria. These players have limited access to crucial inputs such as fertiliser and quality varieties. As such, yields in Nigeria stand at 7 tonnes per ha, compared to an average of 29 tonnes per ha in India, the world’s most productive cassava market, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Second, cassava deteriorates and spoils rapidly, and in Nigeria the ability to get the product to market quickly and efficiently is hampered by poor infrastructure. Post-harvest losses can reach as high as 60% for tubers and vegetables. For cassava specifically, post-harvest losses are estimated to cost the country some $600m, according to the GIZ, the German development organisation.
Domestic and international policymakers have recognised that more can be done to help growers capitalise on the potential of cassava. This includes initiatives to improve root quality, bolster yields and connect farmers with markets. The National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) is working on the development of varieties that have greater longevity. The NRCRI is targeting an extension of the life of the crop from 48 hours to up to 10 days. This would have a dramatic impact on revenue potential.
Projects supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have also focused on improving the quality and productivity of cassava. The African Cassava Agronomy Initiative, part funded by the Gates Foundation and managed by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, focuses on fertiliser usage, breeding and lending support as a means of boosting cassava production. These initiatives have set ambitious goals to drive up yields and have seen new varieties flood the local market. Such research is already paying dividends. For example, the Federal College of Agriculture in Akure, in Ondo State, has reported yields as high as 50 tonnes per ha using new cassava varieties. This is one of the highest rates logged in Africa.
Policymakers are also focused on creating markets for supply. The government has been pushing for the use of cassava flour in bread production and cassava derivatives in the brewing industry. This strategy would not only bolster the local cassava industry, but also reduce the country’s considerable food import bill. As part of this process, the federal government is planning to establish staple crop processing zones, or agro-processing clusters, situated close to the source of production. The first zone, launched in Alape in Kogi State is centred on cassava, with plans to produce 720,000 tonnes of root, 62,000 tonnes of starch and 5000 tonnes of sweeteners. The $314m project could generate annual income of $90m, according to initial estimates. Such schemes will be crucial if the cassava industry in the country is to reach its full potential, estimated at N8.5trn ($30bn) per year.
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