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How to Farm Cassava / Manioc

Updated on November 25, 2012

Video How to Farm Cassava

Farm Cassava (Manioc) for Africa

Africa is starving. It is riddled with disturbing civil unrest, an amazing disregard for civil rights and liberties, tin-pot dictators and disease. In its current form, it is a bottomless pit into which Western countries pour money to appease the noisy rattling of begging bowls and TB-infested chests. Everything, including the future of its citizens, is for sale and most of it is being bought by the Chinese. This is not because the West does not know a good investment when it sees one (make no mistake that Africa is a fantastic investment, particularly if you have a hankering for cheap minerals). Rather, it is because, no sooner does the scab of European exploitation start itching in recovery, than some lunatic African leader arrives in his German luxury motor vehicle, and scratches that scab right off. The wound never recovers and the money never stops – one of the most successful business plans ever developed and worth endless billions of dollars.

Africa is not only starved of moral leadership in many countries. It is also starved of sustenance and nutrition. The continent’s diametric opposite of the pitiful leadership and governance, is the hopeful persistence of its people. The world has recently seen amazing displays of popular solidarity in what became known as the Arab Spring. The nomenclature is slightly misleading because the protests were not limited to the Arabic Middle East, but also ignited across much of Northern Africa. The influential Time magazine named its Person of the Year in December 2011 as “The Protester”.

This is all good and well. Many of you are heated from within as you read this, not only with moral indignation, but more importantly, with your second or third meal of the day. The hero of this story now enters from left screen: Cassava. Not to be mistaken with 18th century Italian adventurer famous for his womanising.

Cassava is a food crop that grows well in varying soil qualities and yields even under environmental conditions that are not favourable to other crops. It is not terribly labour intensive and yet there is an excellent market for the numerous derivative products made from its leaves and roots. Certain healthy farming practices are required for sustainability and the basics of farming cassava follow. The leaves are eaten like vegetables and the roots are an alternative source of starch.

Select a Good Site for your Cassava Farm

A common business rule for shops and restaurants is: Location, location, location. Many businesses can be successful despite being in a weak location, but the most successful are often in the prime position. Think of this aspect when choosing a site to plant cassava.

The better positions would have other protective vegetation surrounding them. This other vegetation is a clue that things grow well in the area, but they will also provide protection for your plants against hostile weather conditions. Their falling leaves will supply natural compost and shield the ground from too much sunlight. This provides nutrition to your plants and keeps the soil as moist as possible.

Although you will want to have moist soil, even inexperienced farmers will know that you do not want mud. Test the soil in which you want to farm cassava and note the lie of the land. Gently sloping or flatter well-draining land will allow rain and other water to penetrate to the roots of your plants without drowning them. Cassava is not a fish and does not like to live under water! If your selected site slopes steeply or becomes a lake for days after water, it is not the right plant for you. Do some more homework and find one that suits the local conditions better.

This plant is highly resilient and tolerant of relatively poor conditions, but a better yield can obviously be achieved in fertile conditions. A simple test is to take some moistened soil in your hand and try form a ball with it. If you cannot form a ball the soil is too gritty with too many small stones and sand; if it makes a tight ball then it probably has high clay content and is a bit dense. Neither of these circumstances necessarily prevents cassava from growing, but the better soil will form a nice ball and crumble apart.

Finally, exercise your good judgement. If your chosen location is a renowned failure for growing crops due to disease and poor conditions, you may wish to conduct some experimental planting first, over a smaller area before committing yourself. Lasting relationships generally start with a period of getting to know each other – it is not always love at first sight…

Look After your Chosen Site

To continue with the previous metaphor, lasting relationships might start with romance and excitement, but they are fed by more enduring emotions like appreciation. Without the food of gratitude, those relationships can only be harvested for a certain period of time before they consistently yield less and less.

Your cassava farm will surely enjoy your gratitude, but if you really want to say “thank you”, then feed it with the compost (green manure) of decayed plants. This manure is ploughed into your soil while a similar mix that is still in the process of decaying is used as mulch. Mulch is chunkier and has not yet become compost – or it can be something like chipped wood. This provides a layer of cover on the ground which protects the soil from direct harsh sunlight and helps retain moisture for plant roots.

You can also go the route of having live mulch. An example is the egusi melon, which is planted with the cassava and is also a food crop. It is not necessary to plant food crops as live mulches and you could also use a non-food mulch that grows in the off season leading up to cassava planting in the next season.

Interspersing your cassava plants with other food crops will help improve soil quality in a similar fashion to live mulches. Choose a suitable “intercrop” with some careful planning based on the area you farm in and the soil qualities. Commonly planted intercrops include maize and vegetables, but ideally, consider legumes such as cowpea or groundnuts because they make and release nutrients into the soil to feed your cassava.

Choosing the Best Type of Cassava Varietal

Planting crops for food carries the obvious targets of something that grows quickly, gives good yields, stores well and is resilient to pests and diseases. Particular threats in terms of disease are Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD) and Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD).

The easier cooking variety is more mealy and is often regarded as “sweet” cassava. It requires less processing and is therefor easier to sell and use in everyday life. The better food varieties bulk early, meaning that their storage roots swell, storing nutrition. This is ideal because even in circumstances where the leaves are punished by weather or pests, you will still have a crop in the roots.

The reference to storing well, above, means that the full roots survive well for extended periods of time in the ground. This prolongs your harvest period and makes harvesting less urgent when the conditions are not suitable. It also allows the farmer to let mother earth store food in the soil without having to harvest the roots and find space and a method for storage.

Ideally, plants that are less sensitive to the local pests and weeds will perform best. Do some research on the best plant applicable to your area, but developed varietals that are particularly resistant to CBSD and CMD are dubbed Pwami, Mkumba, Makutupora and Dodoma. These four are new and high-yielding crops, specially developed for the local conditions.

The Best Method for Planting Cassava

There are a number of important considerations to keep in mind for planting your farm and these include: the time of year; your land tillage method and soil preparation; the type of seedbed and handling of plants.

You can find out the best time of year by taking advice from local elders and farmers, but the basic premise is to plant early in the rain season. This will give your plants a chance to establish themselves before they need to face the hardships of the dry season and the associated pests.

Use your common sense when it comes to land tillage based on the type of soil and slope of the land. If the soil is hard and dry, your poor plants will not have a chance to establish good roots. Likewise, if it is steeply sloped your plants will wash away whereas if it is flat, your plant roots will drown. A good practise is to plant your crops on ridges or mounds so that they have a chance to develop their roots in topsoil and do not have to try survive in standing water.

Choose your baby plants carefully and handle them with care – they will not appreciate being bashed about and their nodes are particularly important. The stem cuttings for planting should be between 20-25cm long and each have about 5-8 nodes (points of growth). Try to pick healthy cuttings free of pests and fungus. Avoid plants with discolouration, abnormal growths and bugs.

Cassava is a remarkably robust type of crop and the stems can be planted horizontally, vertically or at an angle. As always, tap in to the local knowledge if you can and speak to more experienced farmers to find out what is best. The planting methods all have benefits as well as limitations, so planting some test samples before commencing full-scale farming might be an idea if you have that luxury.

Vertically planted stems (standing upright) should have about two-thirds of their length below the surface. This will have the effect that nice, deep root systems develop which are suitable for sandy soils and protected from the weather and birds or rodents. The downside is that the harvesting is trickier because the deep roots are pulled out less easily.

Horizontally planted stems (lying flat just below the surface) are more exposed to soil erosion, rodents and birds. The benefits are that any mites or disease that thrive above the surface are killed and harvesting is easier.

Finally, remember that we all need space to grow but when we are young, we need to be protected. An area with good vegetation will protect your young plants, while indicating to you that the climate and environment is conducive to plant growth. Choose an area that will protect your plants and also allow you to move freely enough to look after them, remove weeds and supply manure, and ultimately, to harvest them.

Farm cassava (known as manioc in other parts of the world) and fight the hunger in Africa.


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