African agricultural officials have converged on Cameroon to map out ways of processing the continent's enormous food resources instead of exporting the raw products to Europe.
The international trade fair on agriculture and agro industries is focusing on the cassava crop, hoping to add value to the more than 200 million tons of the starchy tuber Africa produces each year.
As 300 women - members of the Akono cassava farmers association - peel, boil, steam, slice, pound, roast and ferment cassava roots and leaves, Farmer Nteme Florence says the processing makes cassava usable in many ways.
She says besides consuming cassava leaves as vegetables and cassava roots as a basic food, the women transform it into starch, whisky, beer, flour gari (toasted granules), chips, and many other products. She says they use cassava skin as animal feed.
Cassava production cooperative president Marie Joseph Ndzana Fouda says they use traditional methods to process the tuber because they lack modern equipment.
She says they also have been longing for tractors so they can stop manual work on their farms and increase cassava production, helping themselves and the many people who approach them to learn how to cultivate cassava to supplement their incomes.
Most cassava exported
Most of Africa's cassava is exported to America, Thailand and Brazil, countries that have high annual consumption of starch products. Japan imports nearly a million tons a year.
DRC agriculture official Stanley Yimngain says it is time for Africa to reduce raw exports and process cassava at home to create jobs.
"We find that cassava production, if it remains traditional, it will not be able to benefit from the opportunities that are coming up now with processing (and) industrialization,” Yimngain said. “So the forum is trying to bridge the gap between what the industrialist are looking for, what the small scale producers are doing or are producing and how can we meet half way so that the benefits also come to the small holder farmers. We would like to see that agriculture is a business opportunity and not just what our parents used to do."
Nigeria sets an example
The Central African Republic representative at the forum, Samson Garassi, says African countries lack the technical and financial means to equip rural communities to process cassava.
He says 90 percent of the population of the Central African Republic consume cassava, but average production in the C.A.R. has stagnated since it is difficult to develop the sector and process and export the tuber in the absence of funds. He says the C.A.R. is expecting funding agencies to help them grow from artisanal to industrial production.
The participants are learning from Nigeria. From 33 million tons in 1999, Nigeria now produces 45 million, about 20 percent of the world production.
Cassava a staple crop
Agriculture engineer Vincent Noble, who coordinates the program to develop French agro industries, says Nigeria and West African countries have greatly increased labor efficiency, incomes and standards of living through cassava farming.
He says the most important thing about the cassava forum is that it provides an opportunity for Africa to learn from the example of West Africa, which has succeeded in industrial transformation to add value to the product and create jobs.
Cassava is one of the most important staple food crops in tropical Africa, playing a major role in efforts to alleviate food shortages because of its availability year round and tolerance to extreme conditions.