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Quality Cassava Begins with Improved Seed

Summer 2018


In 2015, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded BASICS, a $11.6 million, four-year program to develop a commercially sustainable cassava seed value chain to help Nigerian smallholder farmers improve their productivity and family income. It is led by CGIAR’s Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB).

Context Global Development is a program partner leading the processor-led model and providing business analytics and commercialization support.

Context Global Development consultants and IITA program specialists meet with representatives of local smallholder cassava farmers at a cassava variety demonstration plot near Ilorin, Nigeria, to better understand grower demand for improved cassava planting material.


Although cassava is the third most important source of calories for people in the tropics, after rice and maize, it is often viewed as a poor cousin amidst the world’s family of staple crops. While admirably tolerant to drought and productive even on poor soils, this hardy tropical root plant seems unsuited to modern farming.

First, cassava is vegetatively propagated from stem cuttings, and the crop is highly perishable, deteriorating rapidly after harvest. Vegetative reproduction also means the rate at which new, improved varieties can be multiplied to supply new planting material to farmers is limited by production cycles. For smallholder farmers not practicing mechanization, harvesting cassava roots and dealing with the leftover plant material is a labor-intensive process.

Even with these challenges, cassava is the most important food crop in Nigeria. As a primary food source, it has high potential for reducing poverty. Because of its low production cost, widespread cultivation, and capacity for job creation, it is likely that improving cassava production will have an amplified impact for smallholder farmers and their families.

However, far less research and development have been devoted to cassava than to rice, maize, or wheat. This lack of scientific focus has contributed to widely varied cultivation and processing practices, some more effective than others. In the absence of standardized farming practices, it is not surprising that the cassava roots harvested by smallholder farmers lack uniformity. Processors, on the other hand, value uniformity to optimize their production operations and root processing. Accordingly, prices paid to growers are based on starch content and root quality.

The Global Cassava Development Strategy, launched in 2000 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, seeks ways to improve the farmgate value of cassava. At a forum at FAO’s Rome, Italy, headquarters, 80 agricultural experts from almost two dozen countries were asked whether cassava had the potential to meet the food security needs of the estimated 500 million farmers who grow it, and to provide rural industrial development with higher incomes for producers, processors, and traders.

The conclusion of these experts?Cassava has potential to become the raw material base for an array of processed products that will effectively increase demand for the crop. An improved supply chain will contribute to agricultural transformation, raise incomes for smallholder farmers, and promote economic growth in developing countries



Cassava’s potential to improve farmer income, however, is stifled by the absence of an economically sustainable, integrated cassava seed system to provide farmers with affordable and timely access to the planting material of high-performing varieties. Despite being the largest cassava producer in the world, Nigeria’s average yield of 13.6 metric tons per hectare, as estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOSTAT), is less than one-half of what is realistically attainable. Poor seed quality and outdated varieties are commonly cited as factors contributing to low productivity.

In 2015, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded BASICS, a $11.6 million, four-year project to develop a commercially sustainable cassava seed value chain to help Nigerian smallholder farmers improve their productivity and family income. Context Global Development (CGD) is a program partner providing businessanalytics and commercialization support to the grant’s administration in Nigeria.


Building an Economically Sustainable, Integrated Seed System for Cassava (BASICS)

BASICS is a four-year program to sustainably improving farmers’ access to affordable, high-quality cassava seed by developing commercial models for improved seed production in Nigeria.

The program is coordinated by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers, and Bananas (RTB) and implemented by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the Nigerian National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Context Global Development (CGD), National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and FERA (UK).

The goal of the initiative is to provide smallholder farmers access to healthy seed material of desirable varieties to increase farm productivity and build capacity of the entire Nigerian supply, including both men and women cassava farmers, processors, and commercial seed producers.

The program also aims to develop a strong testing, field inspection, and certification system for cassava seed to ensure disease-free planting materials are in use throughout the industry to improve productivity and incomes for farmers and their families.

“As a part of the program, CGD is leading the establish-ment of a replicable commercial stem business model, termed the processor led model (PLM),” says CGD Senior Program Manager Will Rogers. “The PLM aims to address systemic issues in the cassava seed value chain and increase farm-level returns by encouragingthe full integration of industrial processors, who possess the incentive and market power to spur development of an improved seed system.”

High-quality planting materials provide several key advantages over the traditional farmer-saved cassava stems, including increased yield, higher starch content, and improved disease tolerance. Because farmers have not been exposed to these traits and are unaware of the benefits of improved varieties, adoption of high-quality planting materials is low. To fill this information gap, the BASICS program will feature on-farm demonstration plots to show the utility of improved planting materials. A key innovation being tested in Nigeria is the application of novel seed multiplication technology employed commercially in South America, which uses semi-autotrophic hydroponic labs to rapidly increase the multiplication rate of clonally propagated crops in a cost-effective way.

“The potential for this technology to accelerate the development of a high-quality, cassava seed system is immense,” Rogers says. “When new, improved varieties become available, millions of smallholder farmers will finally have continuous access to high-quality seed stems at a fair price.”

To learn more about Context Global Development’s work in Africa, please contact Mark Nelson, Managing Director at Context Global Development (CGD) is a non-profit organization that leads agricultural and social impact programs worldwide. CGD teams with development organizations and government agencies to maximize the value of agricultural resources in developing countries as they partner to accelerate innovations that result in meaningful and lasting change.