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‘How lawmakers frustrate cassava flour substitution policy’

By Femi Ibirogba
19 November 2020   |   4:13 am
It is a long history all the way from former President Olusegun Obasanjo presidential policy on cassava to Akin Adesina’s intervention in the cassava sector.

Prof. KOLAWOLE ADEBAYO, a root and tuber and extension specialist, talks about lack of legislative backings as one of the challenges of cassava flour substitute in wheat flour, as he alleges that wheat import racketeers do frustrate the inclusion of cassava in bread and other confectionaries. He canvassed that Nigeria should act fast to utilise the root crop for economic diversification, job creation and economic development. FEMI IBIROGBA reports.

The cassava bread policy can actually transform the crop industrialisation and deepen production in Nigeria, but that is not happening. What is the problem?
It is a long history all the way from former President Olusegun Obasanjo presidential policy on cassava to Akin Adesina’s intervention in the cassava sector.

Unfortunately, we have done more talks than actions in that sector. More talks in the sense that we have expressed and said what we needed to say, but when it comes to actions, there are other forces that tend to influence what we do.

For instance, that Bill on Cassava Flour in bread has never been passed into law and that is simply because we have people in our National Assembly who, for their personal gains, have ensured that the Bill is not passed into law.

Who sponsored the bill then?
The bill was sponsored by a coalition of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and a number of actors in the cassava sector. Unfortunately, after four years when the sponsor left, the bill goes to rest again.

One lawmaker from Edo State said that people would die of poison if they put cassava in bread and it is purely a lie, because we know that technically, if you eat garri or starch, you won’t die, which is 100 per cent cassava. How can 10 per cent or 20 per cent inclusion in bread kill you?

But people have different kinds of ulterior motives and the wheat consortium is a huge force in the dynamics. If you replace wheat with cassava flour, you are cutting into somebody’s income; that person is not sitting down idle [they are working against the substitution]. Something is wrong somewhere for a country that produces more cassava than anywhere else in the world. It should take a no-brainer to know that cassava flour should form a big part of our flour.

For countries that produce maize, maize flour takes precedence in those countries.
In countries that produce wheat, wheat flour takes precedence over other flours in those countries.

So, what is our biggest challenge?
This is a policy that should work. We also have experience from other countries that shows me that. Maybe necessity is the mother of invention. I don’t pray that we have famine, but if we do, we will learn.

I worked partly in Malawi during my days as the coordinator at Cassava: Adding Value for Africa (CAVA) project, and Malawi got into serious economic problems so bad that that they could not afford to pay the bills for their imports. So, wheat flour was not coming in, and at about that time, we were introducing cassava flour in Malawi.

Bakers, on their own, innovated and started making 100 per cent cassava bread and when the former President Goodluck Jonathan visited Malawi, he saw the cassava bread and was amazed. They told him that Nigerians innovated the products, but the case in Malawi was possible because they had no choice.

I do pray and hope that it won’t get to a stage when we would have no choice.

With the pressure on the naira, we are almost there. What do you recommend the government should do on the cassava flour substitution policy?
There is something about economic principles in Nigeria. If you say there is dollar scarcity, is it really a scarcity or some form of artificial maneuvering somewhere? I think that is a big issue in our country.

Going forward, I think that the cassava flour-making factories need to put on the gauntlet.

So far, we had taken this approach from a governmental policy perspective, but I think we need to go back home and take it from the people’s perspective. The Federal Ministry of Agriculture needs to increase its agricultural extension advisory services, particularly at the level of bakers, so that they know cassava flour is available locally and they can demonstrate that there is a reduction of cost and no reduction in quality if you use a certain percentage of cassava flour is added into wheat flour. The uptake of that locally processed flour will necessarily change the market dynamics.

It is more time-consuming in terms of you need to put in concerted efforts that in the next three to four years to begin to see results, but the results are permanent.

Once an individual baker chooses a particular number of bag and we have done the research on this – put one bag of cassava flour with four bags of wheat flour, mix them together in your own bakery and make bread – your consumers won’t even know the difference. That is already a 20 per cent inclusion.

Then you would have reduced your cost of operation by at least 23 per cent, which then makes sense for you as a baker.

Now, if we do that centrally from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, we will require state government to now give concessions to bakeries that have openly declared cassava inclusion in the bread. So, if you openly declare cassava inclusion in your bread, you get some kind of incentives.

Apart from that, we have ethanol and so many other things we can do with cassava. Why are we not maximising all these potentialities?
The issue with non-food uses is that when you begin to take a raw material that is used as food and put it into a non-food use, you can inadvertently create some problems. That is why the use for ethanol and industrial starch has not had so much push as cassava flour for bread, biscuits and so on.

The reason is simple. As a nation even though we produce a large quantity of cassava, we also eat much cassava than any other nation in the world. So, it is our staple. No nation will put its staple into fuel or other uses.

If we do, we stand the risk of getting the prices so high that it becomes no longer as easily available as it is.

Its use in non-food processing can also stimulate deeper production?
It can, but we are talking of an annual crop. The cassava production response to price changes is one year and in one year, you could cause a big damage to food security in the country before people can begin to harvest the next crop of cassava.That is a major issue.

The alternative, if we really want to go into that direction, is to dedicate new farms to ethanol and other industrial uses. So, we can have a new commercial farm established, which product is entirely dedicated to these industrial uses like ethanol, industrial starch and so on.

That is a different policy direction which will be good for the economy, but will require a different kind of drive and stimulus.

In summary, what ways will you recommend that we utilise this golden crop to create employment and wealth for Nigeria?
As I said, the first is that we need first impetus in our extension and advisory services guided by the ministry, empowering our bakers to stay using high quality cassava flour.

I also think that from the national planning perspective, we need to go the order of commercial farms towards commercial and industrial uses, but at the local and state government levels, we need localised incentives for people who adopt raw materials like cassava into their products so that they have a sense of belonging.

If you sell a product like Garri Ijebu, that sense of Garri Ijebu, if the government supports it by giving you some incentives, give you a sense of belonging which you can then ride on to create more employment, to produce more economic activities within the economy. For me, that is the way.