Oct 19, 2008

A taste for cassava bread

By Will Ross

UK- BBC News, near Accra

The workers on Motherwell Farms, north of the capital, Accra, are struggling with the heat and the two-metre tall cassava plants.

The name suggests Scotland but the weather is definitely not.

Bread and biscuits made with cassava flour taste as good as wheat versions
In the stifling Ghanaian heat, it takes some huffing and heaving to uproot the green-leaved stem to reveal the earth-coloured tubers underground.

A little larger than a potato, these tubers are one weapon in the government's efforts to tackle the food crisis.

Ghana imports all of its wheat mostly from the US and Canada.

Earlier this year the importers' bill increased from around $500 (£289; 372 euros) a tonne to $900 and the cost of a loaf of bread also shot up by as much as 70%.

At the Food Research Institute in Pokuasi, half a dozen women wielding sharp knives are peeling the cassava at speed.

This drought-resistant root vegetable is a staple food in Africa and a popular accompaniment to a variety of fiery Ghanaian soups.

But these particular white tubers are being washed, grated, pressed, dried and milled to produce cassava flour.

Bread and soup

"We have been trying to promote the high quality cassava flour for 10 years," says Nanam Dziedzoave, of Ghana's Food Research Institute.

"But, with increasing world food prices, this is an opportune time to promote the incorporation of high quality cassava flour into wheat.

"It is not only going to reduce food prices, it is also going to improve the livelihoods of farmers as well as save on foreign exchange," Mr Dziedzoave says as he checks the quality of the freshly milled cassava flour, sifting it through his fingers.

Adding 10% cassava flour to 90% wheat flour may sound like a small step but, in a country that imports hundreds of thousands of tonnes of wheat each year, it could have a significant impact.
There is demand for cassava flour - but not enough supply

In Accra's Chantan suburb a dozen bakers are mixing the two types of flour and producing an array of breads, pastries and biscuits.

"Those that have tasted our bread can't tell the difference between the normal wheat one and they like it," says Lydianne Antwi of Lyanco Catering Services.

For biscuits, the cassava flour ratio can reach 50%. But there is a problem - supply. Even though Lydianne and her colleagues are calling out for the cassava flour, which is up to three times cheaper than wheat flour, they can not find it.

"The ministry is negotiating with the flour mills and supporting some high quality cassava flour producers to boost the supply for the bakers," says Paulina Addy of Ghana's Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

Ghana is making efforts to cut down on wheat imports and use cassava to make flour

"The problem is we only want high quality flour and that needs very good equipment and we depend on gas or electricity to dry the cassava so it is capital intensive," she adds.

The Ghanaian government wants to make it compulsory for all flour to contain 10% cassava flour.

Critical to achieving this aim will be getting the country's four major millers on board, and they seem nervous.

"We do not want to get involved with re-tooling our factory because we are not sure of the sustainability of the supply of cassava," says Reggie Sackey-Addo, General Manager of Irani Brothers which has so far this year imported 139,000 metric tonnes of wheat for its mill in Tema - most of it from the US and Canada.

Boosting production is going to require a mammoth effort.

Adding value

Financial assistance has come from the University of Greenwich's Natural Resources Institute, which received $13.1 million dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to assist cassava projects in five African countries - Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi.

Mr Dziedzoave of the Food Research Institute is also the country manager of C:AVA - Cassava: Adding Value For Africa, which is receiving Ghana's share of the Gates' dollars.

"We are working with 20,000 cassava farmers and we hope by the end of the three year project the income per household will increase by $190 dollars per year," he says.

As with all donor projects, the millions of dollars do not seem to go very far.

By the time management and other costs have been taken out in the UK and in the five African countries, the $13 million has shrunk to $6.7 million. That leaves around $75 to invest per farmer.

Despite the fact that wheat prices have fallen recently, the cassava flour project makes a great deal of sense as it would help cushion the country against future price increases.

The bread and biscuits taste good - I have tried them. But in Ghana there will need to be a huge effort to ensure that the bakers like Lydianne are not left wondering why they could not get their hands on the cassava flour.

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