Insecurity, low yield, widening gaps in the cassava value chain – Siwoku

Bernard Siwoku, an agribusiness expert and CEO of Spine Edged Consulting Limited, in this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE, speaks on the demand and supply gap in the cassava value chain and the government’s role in accelerating self-sufficiency in the cassava value chain.

What are the gaps in Nigeria’s cassava value chain?
The capacity we have in the country for ethanol is about 1.2million litres but the demand we had in Nigeria was about 9 million litres before the advent of the COVID 19, which has increased demand due to the production of alcohol-based hand sanitizers. That demand and supply gap is still there to be filled. If we have all the players, we have now, multiplied in triplicate, it will still not meet up with the demand for ethanol alone.
For starch, we still have a lot of players there and people coming on board. The demand is 240,000tonnes and the local production is less than 50,000tonnes. There is still a huge gap in this sector, especially for food-grade starch.

We are discussing all of these because Nigeria is the largest producer of cassava and at the same time, we are also the largest consumer of cassava-based food products globally. In terms of our staple, no other country has a staple that is cassava dependent like Nigeria and that is why we are having this challenge for the industrial players.
We produce a lot of it and a bulk (about 90 percent of total fresh cassava roots) goes into our staple food – garri, fufu, lafun, abacha, kpukpuru, etc. The industrial players want the same cassava for their products – ethanol, starch, HQCF, modified starches, sweeteners, etc and now there is also this competition between the traditional value chain and the industrial value chain.

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This is also part of the things affecting the industrial players because the traditional value chain actors determine the price of cassava roots. So, if the garri person is offering a certain amount and the industrial player because of his financial projection has a fixed amount he cannot exceed, he will not get the cassava he wants and that is one of the problems we have been facing over the years.

We have tried to increase the yields and the local farmers still see it as an opportunity for them to maximize their returns, so they choose to sell to the traditional value chain, though that quantity is minimal and payment challenges are also there because most of the times you see the farmer is the one producing it and his wife or one of his relatives is the processor of garri, who comes to collect the roots from his farm. Before the farmer sells to the industrial person with who he already negotiated, it is already a challenge because they have tampered with the farm. This is another dynamic happening within that sector.

The anchor borrowers’ scheme is for us to have contiguous farms close to the processors that can be monitored and shared to smallholder farmers for cultivation, that was the strategy. It can only yield the desired result if properly executed and monitored.

How did the implementation of this strategy go?
In terms of implementation, there are always a lot of bottlenecks because of the bureaucracy and other things involved. If you want to have an offtake arrangement there has to be an agreement between the parties. But what we often experience is that from the industrial off-taker for instance, he signs a document without total control over what he is doing, and there would be a challenge.

It gets to a point where the market price is so lucrative that at night, the farmers come to harvest his or her field and, in the morning, the processor gets there and wonders what had happened, and they say they do not know but they were the ones who came at night. The farmers would just tell the industrial people that they would refund their money after they have made so much money. But the processor is not interested in the money but the roots that he wants to process into value-added products. So, these challenges persist.

What do you think is the way out?
The way out would be for the government to help in the land clearing and if it is going to be something that would be paid for, it should be done for several years in an arrangement with the processors. Then locations can then be chosen by the off-takers based on proximity to their processing facilities and other logistics. One of the things also increasing the price rate of cassava is the cost of transportation. In a situation where we are producing and the roads are not so accessible, bringing them to the processing centers in the city and urban or semi-urban areas is also a challenge.

For sorbitol (which is an ingredient for toothpaste and chewing gum production), there is just one player for now in Nigeria producing this product. Before there was zero production in-country and the new factory had not even started, they are still test-running their processing facility.
The other ones such as High-Quality Cassava Flour (HQCF) and the likes also have some political undertone and challenges facing them. If we want to produce cassava at the right price for the industrial off-takers and produce enough both for the traditional and industrial value chain, these challenges should be addressed.

If I have my way, I will promote the rich nutrition-based cassava for consumption and produce more of the rich starch line for the industrial off-takers because what the industrial people need is not the big tubers but the starch in it. If we have the high starch line for the industries and produce the nutritious based one for traditional foods targeted for home consumption. This might help reduce the tussle for fresh cassava roots between traditional and industrial uses.

Does the incessant security level also pose a challenge?
Definitely. As we speak most farmers fear going to the farm now because of insecurity. We also find that what humans like, cattle also like, and this is one of the problems we are having as well. We used to have the bitter variety cassava but now most of what we have are the improved varieties that are relatively sweet. So, the cattle eat them.
In some communities, the herdsmen uproot the cassava roots and chop them for the cattle to eat. So, today, everybody is scared not to talk of the raping, maiming, and the other things that go with the invasion of farmlands. We also have the challenge of climate change with the delay in the rains.

There are no rains, and the prices of food will keep going high with these challenges. Covid-19 stopped a lot of production overseas, so those countries are only taking care of their people now. All their stocks are for their people. So, even if you have your money and you want to import, you will not get it.
So, let us start looking inward and in doing that, we need to start encouraging urban gardening and urban farming if we want to reduce the pressure on ourselves because it would get to a point where there would be a shortage of food supply for the people.

What is the capacity of the current processors in the market?
Processors are not operating at 100 percent of their installed capacity because they do not have the raw materials to run their factories for 300 days annually, which is what is happening to all the cassava processing facilities.
By their books, the price of cassava is a maximum of N10,000 per tonne. Who is ready to sell a tonne of cassava for N10,000? Not even N30,000 or N50,000. If you get at N50,000, it means you have a strong relationship with that farmer over the years. I hear it is currently going for N55,000 per tonne. N55,000 against N10,000; who is going to pay the difference? That is why there is a lot of diversion to food coupled with the fact that other alternatives are not available in terms of food.
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