'SMEs Should Utilise Untapped Investment Opportunities In Cassava Industry'

Grace Mahende is the Country Manager of Cassava: Adding Value for Africa (CAVA II) Tanzania. In this interview, she talks about the need for entrepreneurs in Africa to utilise the several opportunities that abound in the emerging cassava industry, even as she insists that cassava production and processing is a money-spinning business.

How is CAVA II Tanzania transforming the cassava sector in the country?
The real objective of the Cassava: Adding Value for Africa project is to open up markets for smallholder farmers by encouraging large investments into cassava processing. It doesn’t mean that we are moving away from our original focus which is to improve the livelihood of farmers, but by creating more markets for cassava, the farmers will have more income. That has been our focus in Tanzania.

One of the lessons we learnt in CAVA I is that the scale of investment for cassava processing in Tanzania is limited; limited in terms of technology and the capital that goes into the sector. So, in CAVA II, we are creating new cassava value chains as well as opening up new markets for smallholder farmers to supply cassava roots to the markets.

In the first phase of the project, we focused on the High Quality Cassava Flour value chain. Along the line, we found out that there is a huge gap between market demand and what the processors can offer to the market. To solve this problem, farmers are given high yielding varieties to improve their productivity.
Secondly, in almost all the countries, processing of High Quality Cassava Flour is done by sun-drying. The volume of HQCF that can be produced by sun-drying is very small; hence, the production of HQCF was limited. Fortunately, most of the big companies that make use of HQCF require a consistent supply of the product all-year-round. So, what we are doing now in CAVA II is to promote investment in cassava processing, particularly in flash-drying technology. We are promoting the use of solar-drying and flash-drying technology.  With this, we believe the challenge of inconsistent supply, low volume and inability to meet the marketing requirements will be solved to an extent.
Again, during CAVA I, we had only one value chain, which is the HQCF value chain but in the second phase, we are expanding the value chains. We are currently working on poultry value chain, where we are going to replace maize and other forms of starch used in poultry feed with cassava.
We are also looking forward to introducing other value chains, thereby widening the options for farmers to sell their cassava root.
What project has CAVA II Tanzania undertaken that you are particularly proud of?
During CAVA I, our primary focus in terms of geography was limited to the southern part of the country. In this phase, we are expanding the location where our operations will be taking place. We are including the Lake Zone and we have selected three districts in the region to start with this season, hopefully we can expand to other areas of operations.
Through our intervention, we have been able to help the small scale and larger scale investors to find out the impediments hindering them from penetrating into the market and some of the challenges that reduce their profitability. So, as a result of our intervention, people have started investing in cassava processing. Some have already started opening up funds for planting cassava and we are supporting them in acquiring the technology to start up their medium cassava processing enterprises.
How are you collaborating with other stakeholders in the cassava value chain to create a demand for cassava? 
You know, the cassava value chain is very broad, from cassava production to cassava utilisation. We are not doing the work alone; we are working with other stakeholders. Starting from the district level, we are working closely with the district government, the agriculture department in the district, and we are working across with the national programmes on cassava. We are working with other stakeholders on marketing and technology development for cassava and we are also not only working with government but also with agencies and non-governmental organisations.
We are doing all these because we know that through collaboration, we create sustainability of the intervention. CAVA project has a life span, so we need to create a system that is working so that even after the CAVA life time, the activities and the initiative that we have initiated would continue for the benefit of the cassava sector in the country.
Access to market has remained a major challenge to smallholder farmers who are scattered in Tanzania. How are you helping to open up new markets for these farmers?
In the first phase of the project, there was a need to segment the market because cassava as a crop is very bulky and most of the farms are situated very far away from the market centre. To help the farmers access the market, we have devised a number of interventions. We have groups within the villages which the farmers sell cassava to. The fresh cassava root is processed within the villages thereby reducing the bulkiness right within the village. From there, we aggregate from the several processing units and that is how we attain volumes that are sent to big markets. So, with the markets within the village, it is easy for them to sell their produce within the locations.
Before now, people look at Investment in the cassava sector as an unprofitable venture but today, things are different. People are now looking at cassava as a crop one can resort to when everything goes bad. Cassava is a commercial crop; there are lots of opportunities in the crop. We can use the crop to fight against poverty and can also use the crop to improve people’s income in our society. Cassava can grow in almost all the regions in Tanzania but there are some regions that have higher potentials compared to others.
If someone should ask you why they should invest in the cassava sector, what would your advice be?
There is a high demand for cassava-based products. For instance, in the biscuit industries, High Quality Cassava Flour is used as a replacement for wheat flour.  What is missing is the volume that is required to meet this market. So, it is an investment opportunity. There are untapped investment opportunities in the cassava industry but we need to open our eyes to look at cassava as a potential crop for investment.
Beyond the opportunities that abound in the cassava sector, what are challenges limiting cassava production in the country?
One of the challenges limiting cassava production in Tanzania is low yield.  Farmers in some locations experience low yields due to poor soil facilities. In some areas, lack of access to quality planting materials is a challenge and in some areas, diseases that affect the cassava is a challenge.
What does CAVA II Tanzania hope to achieve before the project terminates in 2019?
Our vision is to transform the sub-sector. We have learnt in the first phase that it is possible to have High Quality Cassava Flour value chain. It has demonstrated the capability and now we are building on that experience to move into the second phase of the project. For long, it has been left in the hands of the smallholder farmers but the farmers cannot develop the sector singlehandedly. We are now moving into the space and we are now encouraging small and medium scale enterprises to invest in cassava and this is how we are going to support the majority of smallholder farmers growing cassava in the country.