CHALLENGE OF THE CASSAVA INITIATIVE

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The economic benefits of the initiative are huge if well implemented

In September last year, two American companies, Ecotech-rab and Tranfeed Group along with their Nigerian partner, Satco Global Group promised to establish cassava production and processing factories in a Kwara State community. “It will cost us about $100 million,” said Mr. Femi Philips, the Group Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Satco Global Group. “We intend to complete it in the next 18 months. The project is expected to gulp about 5000 hectares of land. The first phase will be about two streams of 120 tonnes per day and there will be an upgrade of 48 tonnes per day; giving us about 168 tonnes per day for a stream.”

According to Phillips, his company would bring in the requisite expertise for planting cassava in a manner that will allow for optimum yield. “So we are bringing our species from outside Nigeria and blend with the local species in Nigeria. We are looking at working with IITA in this area. We will produce starch powder, ethanol and feeds for livestock and others. It is an agro-business kind of,” Philips said.

While we do not know how serious the investors are or whether anything tangible has come of the idea, we believe that one of the low-hanging fruits for this administration is in the cassava initiative on which there have been several policy reversals. Indeed, as far back as the early years of the structural adjustment programme, the country’s trade policy was targeted at promoting agricultural exports and curtailing agricultural raw material imports. But after the initial success the policy was more or less abandoned. And in 2002, the federal government launched the Presidential Initiative on Cassava, aimed at creating awareness among farmers on the vast opportunities in the world market.

Measures were put in place for farmers to increase their area of cultivation while the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture came in to support the initiative by introducing and promoting wide varieties of cassava to the farmers and further facilitated the establishment of processing centres and fabricating enterprises. Much was invested, but not much was reaped because there was no follow-up. By the calculations of that period, Nigeria should by now producing some 150 million tonnes of cassava annually. Unfortunately, many farmers have been rendered bankrupt by the inconsistency of succeeding governments on the initiative.

More than a decade ago, President Olusegun Obasanjo approved and pursued the policy of 10 per cent cassava flour inclusion in bread baking. Soon, the millers went to work and started lobbying for a reduction of the cassava content of the bread and succeeded as government slashed the percentage by half and even worse, eventually threw out the entire policy. Perhaps the most ambitious of such idea was the one launched by President Goodluck Jonathan who once shared a loaf of unsweetened bread with 40 per cent cassava flour input with his vice-president and ministers at a federal executive council meeting.

In launching the commercialisation the policy to encourage the substitution of quality cassava flour for wheat flour in bread baking, the Jonathan administration also announced some incentives and fiscal measures. Millers were to enjoy a corporate tax rebates, and equipment for processing the cassava flour and composite flour blending would attract duty free regime. And to discourage and curb Nigerian appetites for 100 per cent wheat bread and other confectioneries (which cost the governme nt a staggering $3.9 billion annually in imports) wheat flour were to attract a further levy of 65 per cent to bring the executive duty to 100 per cent.

At the end, it turned out to be one of those failed policies, and there are strings of them on cassava. Yet if properly implemented, the cassava initiative can create jobs and stimulate the development of the rural communities. But is the Buhari government even looking in that direction?