Global cassava conference highlights major progress in crop research and development

The IV International Cassava Conference brought together over 300 cassava scientists, farmers, private sector, government and donor representatives in Cotonou, Benin from June 11 – 15. Convened by the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century (GCP21), the triennial event presented a unique opportunity for a diverse set of stakeholders to exchange scientific, technical and industrial information about cassava.

The event was opened on Monday 11 by the Minister of Agriculture of the Republic of Benin, Dr Gaston Dossouhoui, who applauded the event, adding that he hoped it would help overcome some of the barriers restricting the cassava sector on the continent. His comments were followed by a keynote address by Dr Martin Fregene, Director of Agriculture and Agro-Industry at the African Development Bank who emphasized their aim to double the productivity of cassava over the next eight to 10 years.

The event brought together over 300 participants in Cotonou, Benin.

Dr Fregene also commended the work of the Building an Economically Sustainable Integrated Cassava Seed System in Nigeria (BASICS) project to adapt Semi-Autotropic Hydroponics (SAH) for cassava. The technology allows for the rapid multiplication of cassava planting material, helping to overcome the typically slow and low multiplication ratio of the crop. This has historically been one of the major bottlenecks restricting the widespread adoption of improved varieties.

“We need robust seed system of improved cassava varieties, including biofortified varieties,” emphasized Dr Fregene.

Research and projects under the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) featured prominently at the event in both plenary and breakout sessions, including a study by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) that used DNA fingerprinting to accurately assess the adoption of improved cassava varieties in Nigeria, which is the world’s largest producer of the crop. The project surveyed 2500 households from states responsible for 80% of the cassava production in the country, finding that while 60% of respondents stated they were cultivating improved varieties, DNA fingerprinting revealed this to actually be 66%.

Developments in cassava processing were also presented, including by CIRAD Researcher on Food Process Engineering, Dr Arnaud Chapuis, who gave an update on improved energy-efficient designs for small-scale cassava flash dryers. The production of cassava starch and flour requires drying the product from a moisture content of 40% down to 13% to ensure a long shelf-life. Small-scale producers often do this by drying the starch under the sun, which is both a time consuming and risky method that requires a large area of land, posing a barrier to the growth of processors. The team of researchers from CIRAD and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) successfully designed and built an energy-efficient pilot dryer that is suitable for small-scale processors, and which will be scaled in sub-Saharan Africa.  

“There are also environmental benefits to the technology,” added Arnaud. “The first is reducing the overall energy demand for drying, and if the unit is using fossil fuels this will reduce its carbon footprint. Another area that we are focusing on is using renewable energy sources to power the flash dryers, which would be an even bigger improvement,” he explained.

Using traditional processing methods, cassava starch is dried under the sun, which is a time consuming and risky method. Photo: N.Palmer/CIAT

Similarly, another new processing technology to turn cassava peels in to an ingredient for animal feed will simultaneously increase the incomes of cassava value chain actors while benefiting the environment. The processing technique was introduced in a presentation titled ‘From Want-Not to Waste-Not’ by Iheanacho Okike of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Each year, nearly 36 million tonnes of cassava peels litter the environment and pollute underground water, with attempts to dispose of the waste by burning equally polluting the air. A new innovation developed by IITA can quickly dry the peels and eliminate harmful toxins, unlocking the potential to create new products and a new industry in the cassava value chain that could employ half a million people each year.

“Real progress came when the main constraint to the use of cassava peels was overcome by CGIAR scientists – drying. The typical method of drying the peels in the sun takes about three days during the dry season, and in the wet season it is almost impossible. To have a technology that shortens the time from three days to only eight hours is a huge leap,” said Iheanacho, who added that it will be particularly beneficial for women who provide the majority of labor in this area.


In fact, this is one of the technologies that will receive funding and support for scaling through the RTB Scaling Fund. Efforts by the program to expand the reach of research innovations was unpacked in a plenary presentation by Dr Michael Friedmann, RTB Science Officer, who introduced the Scaling Readiness Approach used by the program. RTB is building evidence for stepwise thinking about innovation and scaling pathways to support decision-making on the type of research, capacity development and partnership investments that need to be put in place to ensure innovations create lasting impact.

During the event, an award was presented to Dr Claude Fauquet, the outgoing Executive Director of GCP21 in recognition of his life-long dedication to cassava research, while the Golden Cassava Prize was awarded to Dr Hernan Ceballos of CIAT and Dr Alfred Dixon of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture IITA.

The event concluded with proposals for countries to host the V International Cassava Conference in 2021, including Brasil and France, which will be organized under the leadership of the incoming GCP21 Executive Director, Malachy Akoroda.