THE bio-fortified cassava, which is rich in vitamin A, is becoming widespread in Africa, driven by increasing awareness of its health and nutrition benefits; and the variety is changing the description of cassava – a root crop often referred to as “Africa’s best kept secret.”
Consumed by over 300 million people in Africa, cassava has been marginalised in several debates because of myths and half-truths about its nutritional value and role in farming systems. The greatest burden of the crop is the stigma of being considered an inferior, low-protein food that is uncompetitive with the glamorous crops such as imported rice and wheat.
“But the perception about cassava is changing. With vitamin A cassava, we are not talking just about a crop that is rich in starch but about a crop that has one of the vitamins that are most important for human development,” said Dr Wolfgang Pfeiffer, Deputy Director (Operations), HarvestPlus at the just concluded Crop Meeting in Abuja.
Popularly called yellow cassava, vitamin A cassava was bred by a coalition of partners, including International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI,) Umudike, and International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and released in Nigeria in 2011. The first wave consisting of three varieties was disseminated to hundreds of thousands of farmers across the country.
Farmers’ adoption of the varieties is on an impressive scale and the appeal for the varieties has fuelled their spread for research trials to other African countries, including Republic of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Ghana.
“Demand for the varieties is up and we have engaged farmers for multiplication,” Pfeiffer explained. “Our strategy is to get planting materials available to farmers so they can consume these nutritious varieties and improve their health.”
Vitamin A deficiency is a malady in Nigeria affecting about 20 percent of pregnant women and 30 percent of children under 5 years, elsewhere in Africa the statistics are no better. A lack of or a deficiency of vitamin A lowers immunity and impairs vision. This can lead to blindness and even death.
Paul Ilona, Country Manager, HarvestPlus Nigeria, estimated that about 2 billion people suffer from hidden hunger in which vitamin A is an integral part.