South Africa’s Cassava Project: A Promising Venture for Large-Scale Production

The African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) is set to play a crucial role in kick-starting large-scale cassava production in South Africa, aiming to harness the immense potential of this root crop. While cassava is not widely cultivated or consumed in the country, it holds significant importance as Africa’s primary root crop, particularly during the annual “Hunger Gap” when it helps combat starvation.

Cassava, often referred to as the “Rambo root,” has garnered attention due to its ability to thrive in changing climatic conditions. It is drought and heat tolerant, resistant to locusts, and can adapt to marginal soils. Additionally, its long-term storability underground makes it a reliable food security crop.

Beyond its role in ensuring food security, cassava also has extensive industrial applications. A global beer manufacturer is exploring the feasibility of utilizing cassava in its African factories, further highlighting its potential.

Professor Mark Laing, director of ACCI, explains that discussions around industrial-scale cassava production began a decade ago, but significant progress was made only three years ago. ACCI, having trained plant breeders since 2002, is well-positioned to contribute, with several of its PhD graduates having focused on breeding improved cassava varieties. These varieties have already been released in their respective home countries.

The project is supported by the national Department of Science and Technology (DST) and its funding agency, the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), with involvement from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and the Department of Trade and Industries (DTI).

One of the key challenges is achieving the required quantity of planting material. Laing acknowledges this as a significant technical challenge but assures that solutions have been developed. Over the past three years, the ACCI successfully produced 200,000 seedlings from 10 parent plants as part of a feasibility study. These seedlings were planted in trials across Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and KZN for assessment by the Agricultural Research Centre (ARC).

Moving forward, the focus will shift towards breeding improved varieties with desired traits that meet South Africa’s needs. The ACCI, in collaboration with the ARC, will evaluate cassava varieties in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, respectively. The ultimate goal is to have good varieties and agronomic packages available to farmers within five years.

The breeding program will involve growing a wide range of cassava germplasm for South African conditions, with an emphasis on disease resistance, high yields, cold tolerance, and earliness. By selecting excellent parent materials, outstanding progeny plants can be developed and further tested on a larger scale for yield and performance.

The project also aims to actively engage with farmers, providing them with the best parent materials to commence cassava cultivation. In terms of industrialization, the DTI will be involved in establishing factories for processing industrial starch.

Laing acknowledges the need to consider agricultural engineering aspects such as harvesting, peeling, and processing cassava. Challenges include the size and weight of cassava tubers, peeling methods, and the processing of waste streams containing cyanide compounds found in cassava.

The project will focus on breeding both industrial and edible cassava varieties. Industrial cassava requires low protein and high cyanide content to deter animal consumption during growth, while edible cassava should have high levels of protein and essential micronutrients, along with low cyanide levels and an extended shelf life.

With most of the project’s ideas worked out and the final budget being prepared, the ACCI anticipates receiving funding to conduct breeding and agronomic studies. The project may involve four to five PhD students working over a period of five to ten years.

Laing expresses optimism about the potential of cassava production as a thriving industry in South Africa. The country’s robust infrastructure and the need for crop diversity make it an attractive venture, offering a viable alternative to struggling crops like sugar.