Cassava: Great crop for great people

Cassava: Great crop for great people

Cassava, often processed into tapioca powder, is a diet staple for over half a billion people. The broad agro ecological adaptability of cassava and its ability to produce reasonable yields where most crops cannot grow, make the root vegetable an exciting crop for farmers in Laos. As Thailand is the largest exporter of dried cassava in the world, followed closely by Vietnam, and with China as the largest export market for the crop, the 'Inclusive business models to promote sustainable smallholder cassava production (IBC) project aims to develop the inclusive value chain improving livelihoods of local farmers and sustainable cassava production in Laos.

SNV uses an approach with IBC similar to that of SNV's rice projects: instead of working with farmers directly, SNV finds commitment from the private sector to take over activities like extension, provision of inputs or micro finance. Before the project began in three districts of two provinces in southern Laos, the risks to farmers of growing a new crop were too high, and local processing and export factories lacked sufficient product to meet their orders. The project connected cassava enterprises farmers, banks and government to build trust and understanding among all actors in the value chain and improved planting, harvesting, and production techniques through demonstration plots, workshops and exchange visits.

Now enterprises are buying more of the crop than ever before. Farmers understand the value of cassava and how to grow it properly. They can fit the planting and harvesting seasons around their other crops so profits from cassava serve as full additional income for farmers, with yields earning as much as 2,500 USD per hectare. "Farmers tell me now that their main income comes from cassava, and they grow rice for consumption," says National Project Coordinator, Kenekeo Sayarath. "Farmers can earn three to four times what they'd get for wet or upland rice," he adds. In 2013, Nayoby Bank loaned more than 1.5 billion LAK to cassava farmers in the project target areas. Other project-facilitated loans from both Agricultural Promotion Bank and Nayoby Bank help to expand and improve production.

The main factories working with the project, Asian Agronomy Company, KPN Tapioca Factory, and Sernsay Export/Import Co. Ltd., have long-term contracts with buyers offering market sustainability. ASIAN Agronomy, for example, aims to deliver up to 300,000 tonnes per year, but in 2014, the enterprise could only produce 8,000 tonnes, leaving opportunity ripe for local farmers going forward. Mr. Kenekeo sees potential to grow cassava elsewhere. "Market demand is huge," he says. "We estimate that in the next year, we can increase yield and production areas by 50 percent."

As the project is working in three countries, findings and experiences are shared between project staff, and problems are solved together, offering a strong model to build from and upscale throughout the region. This foundation, combined with the interest and motivation from farmers and ongoing factory demand for fresh and dry cassava, shows promising signs for the future of the project. Key stakeholders will be coming together for the upcoming National Workshop in Laos at the end of August to synthesise lessons learned and experiences from the first year and design action plans for knowledge dissemination and sharing going forward.

Champasak TV recently featured the cassava project; please see the video below.