Increasing volume, reducing volatility
Improving the output of cassava planting material through seed-based innovation
A project involving the Foundation, NaCRRI (Uganda), IITA, and selected seed-producing partners, seeks to increase the delivery of quality cassava planting material and improved genetics through seed-based innovation. It incorporates a seed treatment formulation adapted from technology first adapted by EMBRAPA for Brazilian cassava seed producers – MandiPlus (after the Brazilian for cassava, Mandioca).
The root vegetable cassava is the second-most important staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s the crop of choice for many smallholder farmers for several reasons: it is adaptable to a range of climatic conditions; it is tolerant of poor soil quality; and, because it is a sturdy crop which can be “stored” underground, farmers can schedule their harvest-time to best meet market needs and attract favourable prices.
However, cassava production has its challenges. Compared to crops such as maize and other cereals, cassava planting material has a very poor multiplication rate. The knock-on effect of this is that seed production costs are relatively high. The cost of transport dissuades growers from trading and exchanging the crop beyond the local vicinity and encourages the propagation of old planting material and low-quality seed. Cassava is also susceptible to a range of pests and diseases, of which whitefly is one of the most damaging vectors. Contaminated planting material and vulnerability to viral disease jeopardize cassava yield. Losses can sometimes be in the region of 80 percent.
Unlocking the productivity potential of this major staple food requires access to quality cassava planting material, using varieties resistant to pests and disease. An increased rate of multiplication would enable better delivery of clean planting material and improved genetics. This, in turn, could make such efficient planting material more accessible to growers at farm level.
Over recent years, in countries such as Tanzania and Uganda, there has been considerable investment in creating networks of producers of certified clean cassava seed. Yet demand for clean seed far exceeds the reach of current networks. It’s difficult to disseminate seed of improved varieties where there is no quality criteria and few or no formal seed markets.
The objective of this project, therefore, is to improve both cassava crop delivery and genetics, and to achieve it through seed-based innovation. Central to this aim is the incorporation of MandiPlus – a recently developed seed-treatment formulation for cassava. MandiPlus incorporates locally available insecticides and fungicides to increase shelf-life, germination rates, and vigor of cassava planting material. It contributes to an increase in crop multiplication rate by making it possible to halve the size of seed pieces required (from 24 cm to 12 cm). It offers good protection against whitefly for up to four months after planting (the growth period when the crop is most vulnerable). All of this comes without compromising vigor or yield. Importantly, it is a viable and affordable technology which, when integrated into economies of scale and with the potential for increased demand from farmers, should only increase its cost-effectiveness.
In the three target countries of Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya, the emphasis will be on establishing an infrastructure which enables seed to be treated in a safe and environmentally compliant way. This will involve training cassava seed producers in the controlled use and application of MandiPlus and the establishment of field trials in the three regions, as well as ensuring that input supply chains are sustainable and that regulatory requirements are cleared.
The potential length of this project is three to four years, during which time success will be measured by outcomes that include both a doubling of output per growing cycle and a doubling of profitability for those commercial seed entrepreneur (CSE) partners in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya who adopt MandiPlus technology. In turn, these seed providers will be supplying their clients with a higher volume of quality seed which will contribute to increased cassava production and speed up the dissemination of improved varieties in the semi-formal and informal seed sectors.
In Uganda, where ongoing trials of MandiPlus are being undertaken by NaCRRI, responses from cassava growers have been consistently positive, with all highly motivated to continue planting MandiPlus seed. “I can sell treated seeds easily,” states farmer and CSE Augustine Akutu, who expects to sell treated seeds at higher prices because of improved vigor and yield rates. He and other farmers see no problem in training customers to plant treated seeds well; all are aware of additional efforts to meet safety requirements and are willing to install a treatment facility on their farms. Organic food entrepreneur and owner of Divine Organic, Noela V Ojara, who has participated in CSE and MandiPlus training, has been anticipating this project for some time, declaring: “I have been waiting for you since the training in 2017! We want to start with 30 acres in March.”
MandiPlus needs to satisfy the needs of a range of actors in the value chain. Whether CSE partners, commercial processors and seed companies, or (semi-) commercial farmers– trust in MandiPlus must be built through evidence of success (something which is particularly true for smallholder farmers who are naturally more risk-averse to agricultural innovation as they cannot afford failure). To increase dissemination of seed (which is generally traded and exchanged within a 5 to 30 km radius) seed production needs to be decentralized, which may mean establishing additional commercial seed producers. Readily available clean seed, disseminated at competitive prices, will be key to the ability of Mandiplus to make its mark in cassava production.