It’s known as the “Rambo root,” surviving through blistering heat and baking drought when maize and rice shrivel to dust.
Cassava is wildly popular across sub-Saharan Africa. Often served at breakfast, lunch and dinner, it provides about one-third of the total calories consumed across the region.
However, when it comes to a key nutrient, this tough root is a weakling.
“The typical cassava that’s white has almost no vitamin A,” said Peter Kulakow, head of cassava research at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
Up to 250,000 children around the world die each year from the lack of vitamin A, an essential nutrient to fight life-threatening infections, according to the World Health Organization. It's also important for vision, and the lack of it leaves more children blind than any other preventable cause.
Vitamin A deficiency is especially common among the poor, who can’t afford to eat many fruits, vegetables and other vitamin-rich foods.
In Nigeria, the world’s top cassava producer, one-third of children are vitamin-A deficient.
Those numbers led IITA researchers, and partner HarvestPlus, to give the cassava a makeover. They’re developing new varieties with vitamin A built in.
Peel away the cassava’s skin and you can see the difference. The flesh of the new variety is a creamy shade of yellow, which comes from elevated levels of beta carotene, the same vitamin A precursor that makes carrots orange.
A few cassava varieties have some vitamin A in them naturally. Boosting those levels did not require genetic engineering, says Paul Ilona, HarvestPlus country manager for Nigeria.
“The same way you breed cassava to give you high starch content, high sugar level, high yield, it is the same approach that breeders have used to increase the level of vitamin A in cassava to an appreciable level,” Ilona said.
At the moment, the yellow root contains about one-third of the vitamin A content researchers are aiming for. It won’t solve the vitamin deficiency problem entirely, but Ilona believes it will help.
Out to the field
Now, the job is to get yellow cassavas out to the farmers.
IITA and its partners have spent the last few years growing enough material to distribute.
“[The year] 2013 is really a landmark year for cassava because it is the first year that farmers are getting the yellow cassava in large quantities in Nigeria,” Kulakow said.
This year, they plan to get the new plants to 100,000 farmers. Then yellow cassava can be turned into the products Nigerians love to eat, from packaged foods to loaves of bread made with 40 percent cassava flour.
The Nigerian government is backing the effort to make yellow cassava yellower and healthier, giving the so-called 'rambo root' more of a nutritious punch.