Drought conditions prevailing in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, including Botswana, have had a negative impact on food security.
With the Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency (CEDA) rolling out its Youth Farmers Fund, young Batswana wishing to take up commercial farming in the country would do well to consider cassava production as a viable alternative. When he addressed the recent French-African summit, President Festus Mogae emphasized the need for value addition if African exports are to get competitive in international trade.
And speaking ahead of the launch of the Young Farmers Fund, CEDA board official David Magang and former Assistant Minister of Agriculture Peter Siele made a similar appeal, urging prospective beneficiaries to add value by diversify their agricultural activities.
Magang and Siele both advised them to avoid overcrowding one type of business as that leads to oversupply, low prices, reduced profitability and eventual collapse of businesses.
Given that the country is currently experiencing drought conditions drought-resistant cassava should naturally be the way to go if Botswana is to succeed at diversifying her mono-economy based on diamond mining. However, by its nature, cassava crop growing requires a lot patience and expertise. In this regard analysts suggest that government should approach the Botswana College of Agriculture (BCA) management so that some of its experts could from time to time be made available to provide fledgling cassava growers with the necessary mentoring and technical know-how.
The good news is that Botswana already produces sorghum in reason quantities, which means if cassava production succeeded; the country would be on its way to food self-sufficiency and would reduce its present dependence on imported cereals/grains.
History shows that cassava was brought to Africa by Portuguese sailors in the 15th century and people have since been cultivating traditional varieties that were and still are susceptible to pests and diseases.
But thanks to the latest advances in science and technology, researchers in Zambia have produced the Tropical Maniocs Selection (TMS) varieties that are not only high yielding, but have straight roots to support mechanical processing and are resistant to pests and diseases. In addition, these varieties are not only suitable for Zambia and Botswana but can be transplanted and cultivated on a commercial scale across the SADC region, explains Davies Chitondo, one of the scientists spearheading the TMS project in Lusaka.
"Local and foreign plants were crossbred and we came up with good varieties such as Mweru, Chila and Tanganyika," says Chitondo, who is also an advisor on food security to the Regional HIV/AIDS Team for Africa.
The TMS cassava varieties were first developed in the early 1980s when the region was invaded by the mealy bug that wiped out over 80 percent of Zambia's traditional varieties. Again the good news is that TMS have taken centre stage in the fight against hunger that has been compounded by HIV/AIDS, resulting in some homes being led by children who have lost both parents. A non-governmental organisation (NGO) of concerned mothers, called the Mitengo Women's Group in Ibex Hill on the outskirts of Lusaka, has started breeding TMS varieties with a view to distributing cassava stems among families whose food security has been compromised.
"The Mitengo Women's Group started breeding TMS varieties on farms with the view of distributing cuttings to other farmers whose household food security has been threatened by several factors, including the HIV/AIDS pandemic and drought," says Melania Chipungu, one of the women breeders.
In the book entitled: "Building on success in African Agriculture," editor Dr Steven Haggblade from the International Food Research Policy Institute (IFPRI), explains the advantages of the root crop, saying: "Cassava farmers (unlike others) weed only once or twice in the first year and not at all in the second year".
Cassava can maintain steady yields for over 30 years on the same plot without fertiliser.
One other advantage is that TMS varieties yield about 30 tons per hectare while the traditional ones yield only a paltry seven tons from the same portion of land.
Unlike traditional varieties that have crooked shapes, TMS varieties also have straight roots to support mechanical processing as well.
"As TMS varieties increase on farm yields, they likewise increase labour requirements for harvesting and processing. In response to labour shortages in Nigeria, where cassava is widely grown, for example, local artisans have developed an array of simple mechanical processing technologies that reduce labour requirements," Haggblade explains.
In the case of Botswana, successful cassava growing could give the country's Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) and the beef industry a new dimension. Instead of the expensive vaccines, which most peasant livestock farmers cannot afford, they can use cassava which helps to fatten cattle. Experts say that cattle could be fattened by giving them cassava leaves which are rich in proteins.
In fact, in one of the experiments, Haggblade says, it was discovered that Steers fed on cassava leaves "got fatter than those fed on grass". The substance from the cassava tuber can also be used to make glue, flour, starch and many other industrial products.
Given the fact that most SADC countries are drought prone, the Food Agriculture Organisation (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP) and other international food agencies are encouraging the production of drought-resistant crops like cassava to reduce dependence on maize meal, the principle staple food. Agricultural experts also believe that large-scale cassava production has the potential to accelerate rural development while at the same time assuring SADC firms engaged in starch production of a steady flow of raw material that are currently imported at tremendous cost.
With a well established cattle-post system, Batswana who seriously want to add value to their farm settlements should consider growing the drought-resistant cassava - and "indications are that they won't regret it in the long term," Chitondo says.
(Sila Press Agency)