Cassava Disease Pushed Back by 4.5-Year Project

Cassava crop

CRS field agent Joseph Ayieko, right, and Rose Akinyi Ouko of the Catholic Diocese of Kisumu, a CRS partner in Kenya, use a mini-laptop that helps them and farmers monitor data for a cassava project. Photo by Carl D. Walsh for CRS

By Kim Pozniak

Joshua Sebwato lives in the Nakasongola district of central Uganda. He was one of the first farmers to benefit from CRS’ Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, a program that has helped more than 1.35 million farmers in six countries–Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda–limit the destruction of two devastating cassava diseases.
On his 12 acres of land, Joshua grows mostly cassava, and also ground nuts, sweet potatoes, beans and maize. His wife and two children help him on the farm, and when harvest time comes around, he has to hire help.

Joshua is not only a farmer, but an extension worker, which means he trains other farmers and teaches them agricultural basics, such as production, disease management, postharvest handling, and sometimes how to market their harvests. He trains more than 1,000 farmers every year so they can increase their yields and access more profitable markets.

When cassava brown streak disease struck Joshua’s farm, along with hundreds of farms throughout the region, he didn’t produce enough healthy crops to support his family. Sometimes they went hungry. Joshua initially participated in other projects aimed at lessening the effects of the disease. But they weren’t effective.

Then Joshua heard about CRS’ GLCI, a 4.5-year, $24 million program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation to fight two diseases—Cassava mosaic disease and Cassava brown streak disease—that were on the verge of devastating the critical cassava crop throughout east and central Africa.

Protecting a Staple

Cassava is the primary staple of sub-Saharan African diets, accounting for more than half of all calories consumed, and these diseases were a crucial factor in a severe food crisis in the region.

“Nakasongola is a cassava-growing area,” Joshua says of his home district. “Without cassava, as many as 90 percent of families can go with only one or two meals per day. GLCI came to our rescue and provided us with new seed.”

Through GLCI, millions of small-scale farm families could buy cassava varieties that are adapted to local conditions, resist or tolerate the cassava diseases and have higher yields.

“Instead of having food at home, my family would wait for me to make enough money from different jobs to buy food,” Joshua recalls of the time when brown streak first appeared on his farm. “It was unusual for us not to have food from our farm, and we depended on buying food from other areas. For other families, the cassava disease often meant that they had to go into fishing or charcoal production to support their families and afford to buy food.”

Using the expertise of its staff, CRS started partnering with a number of institutions, including the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, the Food and Environment Research Agency of the United Kingdom, as well as national agricultural research institutions and 55 other local partners. Together, they worked with more than 3,000 farmer groups in six countries, teaching them how to recognize disease symptoms and take steps to prevent the disease from spreading.

Introducing Technology

GLCI also equipped 206 local partner staff with mini-laptop computers–modified to endure rugged field conditions — for faster information exchange and data entry. CRS partnered with Intel to roll out 200 of these small laptops to GLCI partners and field agents, most of whom had never used computers before.

“At first it was hard to work with the computer for someone who never handled a computer,” Joshua recalls. “As we went on, you never heard anyone say that the computer failed, because they knew how to handle them. We had frequent training from CRS.”

Rose Akinyi Ouko, who works for the Catholic Diocese of Kisumu in Kenya, a CRS partner, says the laptops really helped her to monitor the progress of the project and to identify farmers who hadn’t yet benefitted from GLCI.

“When GLCI came with the computers, I was able to enter data and access the database for monitoring. I was able to follow up with farmers who don’t appear in the database. It reduced my paperwork,” she explains. “Everybody in the project benefited somehow, including the farmers, partners and field agents.”

Ending after four and a half years, the initiative has enabled “more than one million farm families to recover their cassava productivity,” according to Dai Peters, project director for GLCI.

“While the diseases haven’t been completely eradicated, the prevalence of cassava mosaic disease, for example, has been greatly reduced, largely due to the aggressive promotion of resistant varieties achieved through this project.”

“GLCI was a success. Now we have some hope that there’s good handling of the [cassava], and in general, it was a very successful project and beneficial to all: implementers, beneficiaries and partners,” Joshua says.

Kim Pozniak is a CRS communications officer covering sub-Saharan Africa. She is based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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