Staple of the future: New initiatives aim to raise the economic profile of cassava

As part of the process of improving food security and the profitability of the agriculture industry, the government is turning its attention to stoking not only production but also the consumption of staple crops. The government wants to play to the industry’s key strengths and, as such, is hoping to extract greater benefit from the most widely produced crop in the country: cassava.

If the strategic shift takes hold, it would bring in greater foreign exchange revenue for the country, reduce dependence on wheat and support the growth of the local processing industry.


The root crop cassava is symbolic of the future potential and current lost opportunities of Nigeria’s agriculture sector. The country is the world’s largest producer of the crop by some distance, growing over a third more than its nearest competitor, Thailand, in 2013. Indeed, in that year, the West African nation was responsible for approximately 20% of global production, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).

However, there is significant room for improvement from a commercial perspective. In 2013, Nigerian cassava output was valued at $16bn, yet exports from the crop reached a paltry $1m, according to the AfDB. Indeed, the country barely competes with many of the world’s other major producers – Thailand, Brazil, Indonesia, Democratic Republic of Congo and India – when it comes to exports and yields. According to Augustine Oqua, the chairman of the Nigeria Cassava Growers Association in Cross River State, the Nigerian cassava industry has the potential to create revenues up to N8.5trn ($26.8bn) per year.


The country’s cassava segment is characterised by informal subsistence farming. Nigeria is home to 6m smallholder cassava farmers. However, poor access to inputs and sales markets limit productivity and revenues.

Nigeria does not feature in the world’s top five ranked countries in terms of cassava yield density. The leading country, India, produced an average of just over 29 tonnes of cassava per ha between 1993 and 2013, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN. Nigeria, on the other hand, had a yield of just seven tonnes per ha in 2013. This is well below the industry’s potential, which could go as high as 40 tonnes per ha, Chiedozie Egesi, assistant director of the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), told OBG.


The issues of low productivity and suppressed exports cannot be distilled into a single challenge, as the problem cuts across a number of areas, from infrastructure deficiencies to genetic research. To give the crop a boost, the administration has been talking up the prospects for developing the cassava value chain further. As part of the government’s import substitution policy, for example, the agriculture ministry is pushing the use of cassava in bread as a replacement for wheat. Indeed, the country currently spends N635bn ($2bn) on the importation of wheat. Increasing the use of cassava in the baking process could save the country N127bn ($400.9m) each year, according to Audu Ogbeh, the minister of agriculture and rural development.

This policy was first formulated under the administration of former president Goodluck Jonathan and included plans to boost the use of cassava in the baking and brewing industries. The current government has taken up the plan, seeing in it a means of increasing the commercialisation of cassava, as well as tackling the large import bill and the inflation that comes with it. In January 2016 Comfort Doyin Awe, a regional representative of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Develoment, told a meeting of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan that, “We don’t add value to our cassava. It will help Nigeria if we do that. We need good quality cassava flour.”

The government and partners are working on a number of measures to make this a reality all along the value chain. For example, the African Cassava Agronomy Initiative, which has received $14.4m in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is supporting cassava production in Nigeria and four other African countries through fertiliser, breeding and credit facilitation. The project is led by the IITA and will look at improving root quality, the supply of the crop to the processing industry and the uptake of fertiliser usage. “The value of benefits from this project in Nigeria and Tanzania is projected to be over $27m,” Bernard Vanlauwe, the IITA director for central Africa, told the local press at the launch of the scheme in January 2016.

Higher Yields 

One of the key challenges will be pushing up yields to international levels through the use of improved varieties. Nteranya Sanginga, IITA director general, told the local press, “If we want to increase the productivity of cassava, we must breed new varieties, improve the agronomy and value addition. I think we have done a lot in the area of breeding; what we need to do now is to capitalise on the agronomy.”

This will build on another Gates Foundation project, launched in 2008. The Cassava: Adding Value for Africa project aims to build a value chain for high-quality cassava flour in Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi. The project takes in the whole process, from improving root quality to developing processors and stimulating market demand. It focuses on creating benefits for 90,000 smallholder farmers across the five economies.

These programmes are beginning to record positive results. More than 60 new cassava varieties have been released onto the Nigerian market, some of which have garnered extremely impressive yield figures. The Federal College of Agriculture in Akure in Ondo State, for example, has managed to achieve yields touching 40 to 50 tonnes per ha using new varieties. This represents one of the highest field production rates recorded on the African continent, and about five times as high as the average in sub-Saharan Africa.

Processing Zones 

The government in Abuja has also developed a number of policies to support these ambitions. While the NRCRI focuses on the root varieties and quality (see overview), the Federal government is also pushing the staple crop processing zones (SCPZs) to provide demand for farmers’ increased production. The government has drawn up plans for 15 SCPZs that will act as agro-processing clusters located within major food-producing regions of the country. The first zone was launched in 2014. The SCPZs will cover all facets of the agriculture industry, from horticulture to fisheries, but the first zone, based in Alape, Kogi State, is focused on the cassava value chain. The $314m project is expected to produce 62,000 tonnes of starch, 5000 tonnes of sweeteners and 720,000 tonnes of Cassava root. Initial estimates forecast that the zone will generate income of $90m for the local and national economy.

Although zones are still in the process of being rolled out, the impact has been limited so far, stakeholders say. Speaking to the News Agency of Nigeria in February 2016, Jacob Adejorin, president of the Association of Master Bakers and Caterers of Nigeria, said, “We, as bakers, have expressed enough willingness to make cassava bread, but the raw materials are not readily available for mass production. The issue of cassava bread is not a new initiative, but it has hardly seen the light of the day because the value chain has been weak. From harvesting cassava to processing and packaging the flour, it has not been pleasant for bakers.”

While the previous administration’s ambitious targets of achieving as much as 50% cassava flour in bread production have not been met, there is a greater awareness of the need to transition towards cassava and away from wheat.

Olarewaju Jaiyeola, CEO of Honeywell Flour Mills, a nationwide baker, told the local press in November 2015 that the company has managed to incorporate 2.5% cassava flour into its bread thus far. “By this time next year, we ought to have moved to 10% cassava flour addition,” he added. “The government expectation is that cassava flour mills should contribute about 10% of the flour in our operations; this will be gradual because we are mindful of all other variances and the cost implications. It is expected that this inclusion will assist the farmers to produce more cassava with a ready-made market and by and large it will create employment opportunities.”

If this target can be achieved, it will provide a welcome boost to both the cassava industry and the government’s import substitution strategy.