In the Company of Farmers – Growing Cassava with the FARDC

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 When I arrived at Camp Base outside of Kisangani, Democratic Republic of the Congo in May 2010, I found a company of Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) planting what appeared to be sticks in a recently cleared patch of jungle.  These sticks were actually cuttings from the cassava plant provided by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).  The soldiers were planting 2 hectares (5 acres) of this staple crop, hoping that in one year they would have enough food to feed themselves and their comrades at the training center.

The soldiers were part of the 68-man Agriculture Company (AGCO) assigned to learn sustainable agriculture farming techniques from the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture under a joint United States Department of State / United States Africa Command initiative to improve the food security of the FARDC.

The Borlaug Institute operates out of Texas A&M University, building on Nobel-laureate Norman Borlaug’s legacy of food for development.  The institute utilizes the A&M system’s wealth of expertise to conduct a variety of internationally focused agriculture development projects. Currently the institute has projects in over 20 countries and receives funding from various US government agencies and private foundations.

Food security for the FARDC has been a continuous problem – not only for the soldiers but also for the communities around them.  The FARDC are chronically underpaid and underfed due to funding shortfalls within the national government.  After decades of conflict, the Congolese government is now working to integrate thousands of former rebels into the FARDC.  While this is a sound strategy from a security standpoint, the rebel integration program also creates added strain on an already underfunded military apparatus.

By design, military bases and training centers in the DRC should receive adequate amounts of food for each soldier’s caloric needs.  From my own experience at Camp Base, deliveries of food rations are often delayed, leaving the soldiers to provide for themselves for days or weeks at a time. This problem is further compounded by the irregularity of salary payments.  Soldiers frequently find their names missing from rosters, forgoing salary payments for months at a time.  Soldiers who are not even receiving their meager $30-50 monthly salary are forced to engage in other means for survival.  As a result, Soldiers spend most of their afternoons searching for sources of food in the communities surrounding their bases.  Some resort to pillaging and theft, while others start side businesses, which further detract from their ability to complete assigned duties at base.

A Company of Soldier-Farmers

In 2009, the US Department of State contracted the Borlaug Institute to develop an agriculture program at Camp Base, outside of Kisangani.  The agriculture program was part of the larger Light Infantry Battalion Training – an AFRICOM mission to provide professionalization training to a battalion of FARDC.  In 2010, the Agriculture Company (AGCO) contract was renewed for another 12-months.

The goal of the AGCO project is to train and equip a company of agriculturalists within the FARDC that can provide a regular supply of food to the entire training center. To achieve this, the Borlaug Institute has implemented a “train-the-trainer” model.  Ten of the top soldiers in AGCO are receiving farm management training while the other 58 soldiers receive basic training in agriculture production techniques.  Training modules include staple crop production, horticulture, fish farming, livestock production, and tractor usage and maintenance.

In addition to the cassava field, the AGCO has already harvested local vegetables, a small maize crop, and several thousand fish.  The company is also currently harvesting and processing 11 hectares of rice.  The project will have 43 fish ponds stocked and operational before September 30th.  Once mature, these ponds will provide protein on a weekly basis for the center.

Last month, AGCO began harvesting the same 2 hectares of cassava that they planted over one year ago.  When I left Kisangani in August 2010, I wondered what this harvest would look like.  I never imagined then that I would be able to see the fruits of this crop first hand.

Why cassava works for FARDC soldiers

Cassava (locally known as manioc) is a tuberous, woody plant which is best known in the United States and Europe for its processed form – tapioca.  The crop originated in the Americas where it is called yucca, but spread to Africa during the colonial era.  Today, Africa produces more cassava than the rest of the world combined.  Almost all of the cassava produced in Africa is consumed within the continent; on average, Africans eat 80 kilograms (176 pounds) of it every year.  While the continent produced around 228 million tons of cassava in 2007, it only exported a single ton.1

The Collaborative Study of Cassava in Africa, conducted by the Rockefeller Foundation, found that cassava serves as an important food security crop for Africa.  Farmers most often cited famine, hunger, and drought as the main reasons for planting more hectares of cassava than other crops.  Resistance to disease and pests was the second most cited reason for planting cassava as opposed to other staple crops.2

For the FARDC, cassava is an ideal and versatile crop.  Sowing requires cuttings from another cassava bush, which are cheap and easy to obtain from previous harvests.  The cuttings are planted in a shallow hole in the soil, which requires few man-hours.  The crop does not require irrigation or particularly fertile soil to grow, therefore, requires fewer inputs than other staple crops in the region.  Improved varieties of cassava produce enough shading early on that the crop does not require much weeding, further reducing the amount of man-hours needed for a healthy crop.3

Both the leaves and the tuberous roots offer valuable nutrients and calories for soldiers.  The leaves are high in vitamins and protein. Research by IITA has shown that the quality of the proteins found in cassava leaves is similar to those found in eggs.4  The leaves are traditionally stewed like other green leafy vegetables.  The result looks and tastes like American collard greens.  The tubers are high in carbohydrates and minerals; however, they also contain levels of cyanide that can be harmful if not prepared properly.

Harvesting the leaves and roots are both fairly easy without mechanization.  The leaves can be cut from the plant as needed throughout the life cycle.  The tubers are harvested by cutting off the top of the bush and then pulling the roots from the ground using the remaining stump.  Cassava tubers can be left in the ground for six months after maturing.  This makes it easy for soldiers to harvest the crop as they need it and alleviates storage concerns.  For busy soldiers, this makes cassava a simple crop to reap, as long as they can wait several months for the leaves and over one-year for the tubers.

How to process cassava tubers into flour

Typically cassava tubers are processed into flour that is used to make fufu, a traditional Africa staple that is starchy and sticky in consistency.  Processing cassava into flour without machinery is a long and difficult process.  The AGCO has been furnished with basic, locally sourced, cassava processing machinery and trained in both operation and maintenance of the equipment.

Processing cassava tubers into flour is a seven-step process.  First the tubers must be peeled.  At the moment, cassava peeling machinery is in its infancy.   Peeling machines available now are irregular and require uniformity in the size of the tubers.  Proper peeling is essential to ensure that the trace levels of cyanide within the cassava are not transferred into the final flour.  For this reason, AGCO was forced to hand-peel the cassava crop; the peeling operation for this harvest took an estimated 196 man-hours. After peeling, cassava tubers are washed clean of any dirt and residue from the skin.The third step involves cutting the cassava tubers into course pieces that resemble shredded cheese.  For this step, the AGCO has been provided with a cassava chipping machine.  Afterward, these cuttings are put into sacks and soaked for 2-4 days to remove any additional impurities.  The sacks are then removed and pressed to remove as much water as possible.  The AGCO also has a manual pressing machine for this operation.

After pressing, the cassava cuttings are taken to a sunny spot and spread across tarps to dry.  Depending on the weather, drying can take up to a week.  During the drying process, AGCO soldiers periodically spread the cassava around to ensure even drying.  Research conducted by IITA in Nigeria has introduced a fuel efficient flash drying method that greatly decreases the processing time for cassava.  Even though these dryers are now being produced at one-third their original price ($22,800 versus $68,500), they are still cost-prohibitive for soldiers and average African farmers.5

Finally, the dried cassava cuttings are milled into a fine flour.  Traditionally this step required hours of pounding using a huge mortar and pestle.  The AGCO was provided with a cassava milling machine to transform the course cuttings into flour within minutes.

During the initial harvest on August 3, 2011, AGCO harvested 100 square meters of land.  This produced 1.5 metric tons of raw cassava tubers.  The AGCO processed this into about 470 kilograms of cassava flour, roughly 5 days of food for Camp Base.  When multiplied by the entire crop area, the cassava should produce enough staple consumption for the center for around 6 months.

Notes:

  1. International Institute for Tropical Agriculture. “Cassava”. http://www.iita.org/cassava
  2. Hillocks RJ. “Chapter 3: Cassava in Africa.” Cassava: Biology, Production, and Utilization. CAB International:2002. http://www.ciat.cgiar.org/downloads/pdf/cabi_06ch3.pdf
  3. Babaleye T. “Cassava, Africa’s Food Security Crop.” CGIAR Newsletter,3(1),Mar1996. Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research. Reprinted by the World Bank at http://www.worldbank.org/html/cgiar/newsletter/Mar96/4cas2.htm.
  4. Ibid.
  5. International Institute for Tropical Agriculture. “Bigger Profits, Better Product from New Cassava Flash Dryer.” http://old.iita.org/cms/details/news_details.aspx?articleid=1931&zoneid=81


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