Last year, The Rockefeller Foundation began to tackle a major African food security challenge: the problem of cassava spoilage.
Fresh cassava roots rot exceptionally quickly. With deterioration starting between 24-72 hours post-harvest, and up to 40 percent of cassava lost to spoilage. This is a big problem for the half-a-billion people that rely on the root for either its nutritional or market value as the source of their livelihood.
So in 2016, the Foundation funded the Cassava Innovation Challenge to help surface solutions to this ‘short shelf life’ problem. The Natural Resources Institute at the University of Greenwich in the United Kingdom responded to the challenge by submitting a most promising solution: the NRICassavaBag, which has a built-in curing technology that helps keep cassava fresh for at least eight days after harvest.
These bags are unique because all the materials that will be used to create them can be sourced locally, making them affordable to the farmers that need them most. They will also come in several sizes depending on the need.
As with many crops, significant damage happens during the transport phase and this bag will help mitigate that. The smallest version will help smallholder farmers, typically women, load cassava in manageable weights from farm to truck with no risk of damage or deterioration to the crop. On farms, it is mostly women that carry cassava, at an average total weight of half a day, often with a child on their backs. The medium sized bag will be used on trucks.
In order to ensure processing facilities are utilized most efficiently, processors must have ample supply of cassava on the factory floor. The largest bag size is intended for processors to store cassava safely while preserving its nutrients and starch content prior to processing. While the concept of storage bags are not new to the field of food loss reduction, its successful application to cassava and other similar roots and tubers is yet to be seen.
This solution is especially appealing because they would be easy for everyone to use—from the farmer to the cassava plant processor. Previously, innovations have failed when they have been simply too complicated for non-scientists to use.
We are excited about the ongoing piloting and testing of this solution with partners in Nigeria. The NRI team got off to a strong start in developing the bags. In July, they traveled to Nigeria, Africa’s biggest producer of cassava, for the scoping and the experimentation phase of their work. They focused on locating the most likely elements of the value chain that would benefit from longer cassava shelf life; investigating those elements to establish normative practices and benchmark costs for development of business cases and impact assessment; identifying specific value chains and actors for later prototype assessment of the NRICassavaBag; and laying out the blueprint for the experimental pilot testing phases of the NRICassavaBag.
For instance, the team identified 15 different handling points, each representing opportunity for bruising or other deterioration. The bags will be designed to reduce the number of handling points from 15 to one.
The NRI team has also developed a simply constructed “electronic cassava root” that has an approximate shape to its edible namesake, but measures and logs information related to carbon dioxide, temperature, and humidity. They plan to use this device to track some shipments of fresh cassava roots from farm-to-factory as part of their scoping study. Similar technology has been used with avocado, enabling others to learn about the lifespan of the crop.
While cassava can be harvested year round, in drier climatic areas it requires more labor to pull the root from the ground, which creates a greater opportunity for damage. The bag solution alone will not be able to resolve all cassava spoilage issues, but can spark other solutions, or recommendations for others, as they are developed.
To date there has been a lot of excitement about the potential of these cassava bags particularly from stakeholders in the cassava value chain. Smallholder farmers are enthusiastic about the technology as it has potential to increase the crop’s shelf life particularly for the length of time that it takes to transport it to market; processors are excited about the bags’ potential to enhance starch retention, and to help improve supply chain management by allowing them to source larger volumes from smallholder farmers from wider geographical areas. This in the long term will positively impact both farmers’ and processors’ profit margins.