Unlocking the Potential of Cassava in South Africa: A Pathway to Economic Growth

Cassava, a versatile root tuber also known as tapioca, mandioca, yuca, or umdumbulu, has a rich history in South America and Africa. This drought-tolerant crop thrives in poor soil conditions and requires minimal fertilizer, making it an attractive option for farmers. With its transformation from a subsistence crop to a valuable industrial commodity, cassava is now processed into starch, flour, glucose, and other products used in various industries such as medicine, adhesives, and paper manufacturing.

Despite being Africa’s primary root crop and the world’s largest cassava producer, South Africa has yet to fully tap into the agricultural potential of cassava. The crop is cultivated on a small scale and traded informally, resulting in limited availability in formal markets. The lack of established marketing channels, weak infrastructure, and an underdeveloped value chain contribute to this limited supply. In fact, South Africa imports a significant amount of cassava starch, estimated at over R100 million in 2021, primarily from Thailand.

To address this issue, the Agricultural Research Council and the National Agricultural Marketing Council are conducting a study on cassava production in South Africa. The initial findings indicate that cassava is mainly grown by small-scale farmers in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo for household consumption. However, the crop has received little attention from researchers and institutions, leading to low popularity and limited access to the formal market within South Africa.

Despite the willingness of cassava farmers to expand their production, the absence of processing companies and market expertise hinders their options. Furthermore, the short shelf life of cassava, which spoils within 24 hours of harvest, poses a risk for large-scale production without a well-established market.

To unlock the potential of cassava in South Africa, it is crucial to provide farmers with training in producing high-quality cassava while focusing on marketing and distribution strategies. Agricultural policies should be revised to incentivize cassava production and marketing, considering its potential as a poverty-alleviating and climate-smart crop.

Strategic partnerships between the private and public sectors are essential for developing the cassava value chain. By involving smallholder farmers, distributing improved planting material, implementing intensive production practices, and establishing community-based primary processing systems, the value chain can effectively incorporate farmers and enhance economic participation in rural areas. This approach aligns with South Africa’s Bio-economy Strategy, which promotes the exploration of multi-purpose, climate-resilient crops to address national priorities.

Developing a robust cassava industry in South Africa holds tremendous potential. It can create employment opportunities, improve rural livelihoods, and boost agricultural production and agro-processing. To realize these benefits, it is crucial to foster strategic partnerships, revise agricultural policies, and invest in farmer training and community-based processing systems. By doing so, South Africa can unlock the economic growth and societal benefits associated with the untapped potential of cassava.