Cassava is a starchy tuber mainly produced in the tropical and subtropical regions, both north and south of the Equatorial line (see Figure 1). The root was first introduced to the African continent between the 16th and 17th centuries by the Portuguese, who brought the stems from Brazil. From the delta of the Congo River, where it was initially planted in Africa, cassava spread throughout the continent and, today, the tuber is cultivated in more than 35 countries in Africa.
In many African countries it became the main source of carbohydrates and has replaced some traditional staples such as millet and yam. Cassava has been successfully incorporated into many farming systems across the continent.
Nigeria is the world largest producer of cassava. As a matter of fact, the country used to be a net exporter of agricultural products decades ago. However, with the growing revenue from oil exploration, the country stopped developing its agricultural sector and now spends US$ 11 billion annually in food imports. The drop in the oil price created a gap in revenues that makes such a level of food imports unsustainable. With its adaptability to dry climate, high levels of carbohydrate and variety of sub-products, cassava shows a good potential in helping Nigeria to become less dependent on food imports in the near future.
Figure 1 – Countries where Cassava is Cultivated – 2014 
The Cassava Market
The worldwide output of cassava grew from 176 million tonnes in 2000 to 274 million tonnes in 2014. Africa was responsible for 54.3% of the global production in that year and Nigeria alone counted for 20.2% of the global cassava output. The country is the largest producer of the tuber, having harvested 55 million tonnes of the product in 2014. Thailand and Indonesia rank as second and third major producers, with 30 million and 23 million tonnes of cassava production, respectively, in 2014 (see Figure 2).
Figure 2 – Top 10 Cassava Producers in 2014 
Cassava became so successful in Nigeria in part for its resistance to a dry climate, which made it a reliable food during seasons when most of other crops perished. However, cassava production depends on a supply of quality stem cuttings. The multiplication rate of planting materials is very low compared to grain crops, which are propagated by true seeds. In addition, cassava stem cuttings are bulky and highly perishable as they dry up within a few days.
Despite Nigeria being the largest producer of cassava, most of it comes from smallholder farmers with 1 to 5 hectares of land, who employ simple techniques of plantation with limited use of fertilizers and pesticides. Cassava is produced predominantly by intercropped with yams, maize, or legumes, and typically its production is used for subsistence or sold in local markets. Due to the archaic cultivation methods, yields of cassava in Nigeria are one of the lowest in the world, having never been greater than 12 tonnes per hectare. In the other extreme is India, which ranks as having the highest cassava yields at 35.6 ton/ha, almost 3 times Nigeria’s productivity.
Low productivity is as a result of poor farming tools, near absence of mechanisation and limited market opportunities. It takes an average of 8-10 days for an African farmer to harvest a hectare of cassava, compared to an Asian farmer who harvests the same farm size within six hours.
Cassava has enormous potential as a food security crop and also as a major contributor to improving the livelihood of rural poor farmers within the continent. To reach this potential, crop yields will have to be improved. Use of better-quality stems, use of fertilisers, mechanisation, frequent weeding and right planting and harvesting times are some ways cassava crops can be enhanced.
Apart from food, cassava is very versatile and its derivatives and starch are applicable in many types of products such as foods, confectionery, sweeteners, glues, plywood, textiles, paper, biodegradable products, monosodium glutamate, and drugs. Cassava chips and pellets are used in animal feed and alcohol production.
Trying to Boost Nigerian Cassava Production
Although Nigeria is the main cassava producing country in the world, both import and export flows are negligible. The government tried to revert this by issuing, in July 2002, a Presidential Decree that established that bread flour should contain 90% of wheat and 10% of cassava flour, against the whole wheat bread usual to the country. That initiative aimed to increase demand for cassava, develop an internal market and grow cassava production to a point of turning Nigeria into a net exporter of cassava flour.
The increased demand for the product would also incentivize farmers to yield more and better cassava crops. The Nigerian government targeted reaching US$ 5 billion in revenue from cassava exports by 2007 and aimed to increase production to 150 million tonnes by the end of 2006 .
Unfortunately, the plan fell far behind its goal. Although Nigeria certainly increased its cassava production between 2002 and 2014, it grew from 34 to 54 million tonnes in this period, still one third short of the government’s target for 2007. The policy failed partly because wheat flour millers could not find sufficient industry grade cassava flour within the country, which was a result of limited processing capacity, and partly because cassava flour (which contains no gluten) caused problems with getting bread baked with composite flour to rise. To correct the gluten imbalance, the flour made of cassava was more expensive than the pure wheat flour, giving no incentives for buyers to use the local product. A plan is only good if it covers all aspects of its implementation.
Additional to the unmet target of production, cassava crop yields decreased during that period. In 2002, Nigeria was producing an average of 10 tonnes of cassava per hectare and this figure increased to 12 ton/ha by 2010. However, heavy rains and floods in 2012 and, to a lesser degree in the following years, caused the productivity of the crops to sharply decrease to less than 8.0 ton/ha from 2012 onwards, (see Figure 3).
Figure 3 – Cassava Crop Yield in Nigeria 
A Success Story
The Nigerian government has certainly a lot of work to do if it plans to stimulate cassava production in the country. However, the receptive environment for investment in cassava enterprises created during the earlier years after the creation of the policy, brought some new entrepreneurs to the country.
By that time, South African Mr. Louw Burger started a cassava refining business in Nigeria, the Thai Farm International (TFI). He brought the technique of transforming cassava into starch from Thailand, the largest exporter of cassava starch in the world. The company has its own cassava production, but it also buys the output from small local farmers. Currently the business processes 60,000 tons of roots per year, which are refined into 18,000 tons of flour. The company is targeting to increase the input of tubers to 96,000 tons in the next 3 years. This would generate 30,000 tons of cassava flour annually.
Currently TFI buys 90% of its required cassava root inputs from local farmers, while 10% is produced by self-owned farms. The target for own root production is 50%. The reliance on buying the production from local farmers could be retained in a more mature market, but all the processors are moving into own farming, which does not bode well for the small farmers once the current food crisis is over. At this point, local producers pay little heed to contracts and most of the time sell their produce to the highest bidder, usually local market buyers who use cassava to produce garri – in itself not a bad thing because without garri, the nation would be in serious trouble from a food point of view.
Garri is a granular food product produced by grating cassava roots into a mash, fermenting and de-watering the mash into a wet cake, and roasting the wet material into gelatinized particles. It has a slightly sour taste and can be white or cream depending on the variety of cassava used and the processing method adopted. Nearly 75% of cassava produced in Nigeria is processed into garri.
The recent surge in gari demand is a result of the current ban of rice imports. Louw Burger from TFI says: “Whenever there is a shortage of food and the demand for garri goes up, we find the deliveries from our small farmers drop and our production suffers”. This lack of contractual commitment also diminishes the incentives larger buyers like TFI have in investing in the development of smallholders, such as providing training, better cassava stems and fertilizers.
Cassava in Nigeria is mainly consumed as a food staple. “Very little is processed into the many and varied uses you see in Thailand, Indonesia and Brazil, for example”, Burger says. However, the country has a potential market for alcohol made of the product. “There is a huge market for potable alcohol in Nigeria”, Burger articulates. “We already have one potable ethanol company in operation with a capacity of 500,000 litres per day, while two more plants stand to be commissioned in the coming year”. In addition to that, there are companies expanding with plans to produce maltose and glucose syrup directly from cassava flour instead of using starch. This method could generate cost savings up to US$ 100 per ton of the product.
Some sub-products of cassava are used as animal feedstock. Siftings is a by-product of cassava flour, with as much as 40% starch, and is used as source of carbohydrates for chicken and fish farming. TFI is engaged in this market, but the cash cow of the company is in the snack business: “We have found a massive demand for cassava flour in the biscuit sector and in the starch replacement market. Our flour is 80% starch while pure starch actually only contains 85% of the product. So, both are quite similar, but our flour costs about 35% less than starch. Many starch users in the food sector find that our flour works as well as starch, but costs a lot less. They are lining up to buy all we can produce!”
Cassava, the Centrepiece of a most needed Nigerian Agricultural Revolution
Cassava could become the raw material base for an array of processed products that would effectively increase demand for the tuber and contribute to agricultural transformation and economic growth in many Sub-Saharan countries. The market for cassava in Nigeria is enormous and can yet be explored further. While the government plan for bringing up this potential had the best intentions, lack of a more in-depth study on the market dynamics and diminishing political will, put a halt to what could turn Nigeria into a net exporter of cassava and make the tuber a source of foreign exchange.
Nigeria annually spends US$ 11 billion in food imports and this figure is growing at an unsustainable rate of 11% a year. The country lost a large portion of its revenue with the drop in the oil price and, in this scenario, keeping such a volume of food imports seems an unbeatable challenge. The government has to create and enforce policies that foster agricultural development. Cassava, with its adaptability to drought, high caloric content and variety of sub-products, can become the centrepiece in this most needed agricultural revolution in Nigeria.
The author, Otavio Veras, is a Research Associate of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, a trilateral platform for government, business and academia to promote knowledge and expertise on Africa, established by Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation. Otavio can be reached at email@example.com.