Tunde Solaja : More than 50% of cassava in Nigeria is wasted
As the Conference on Cassava and Starch Africa opens today in Accra, Tunde Solaja, CEO of Crest Agro Products in Nigeria and one of the major panellist at the conference, explains to CommodAfricathe challenges facing the value chain in Nigeria. Demand is very high and rising, production is low with very low yields, imports are tremendous and waste of cassava exceeds 50%. Tunde Solaja points out what needs to be done.
We have a farm land where we do purely cassava with 13 000 ha of cassava farm land. Currently, about 25% is already farmed and we have a potential to do 8000 ha while we leave the remaining for biologic growths, some areas are swamp areas, and we have some locals on the land so we did a buffer place for them, for expansion and we leave some part for forestry.
We begun five years ago and in January we started a factory with a capacity of 20 000 tonnes (t) of starch. The plan is to get to 100 000 t. So we have a first phase which is 20 000 t and the second phase will go up to 60 000 t and we will add an additional 20 000 later on.
How much does this represent financially ?
It's about 5 billion nairas to get the farm and the factory ongoing. Then , later, we will look into derivatives like glucose, fructose, according to the market requirement.
What about the export market ?
There is a big possibility for starch, mostly cassava starch. But we look at the Nigerian market currently and we import about one million tonnes (Mt) of starch every year. And these imports are growing ! The amazing factor is that local production of cassava starch is less than 40 000 t out of a million. So there is a huge potential locally before you can start talking about exports.
But of course the export possibilities are there. Nigeria is the largest producer of cassava in the world. Unfortunately, despite the high volume of production, the yield is very poor. Nigeria has one of the worst yield in world records. You get around 12 t/ha whereas some other countries get 25 t/ha.
So huge amounts of land are used ?
Yes. Because yields are low, you need to cultivate more land. When you look at cassava farming in Nigeria, you can see it is done by peasant farmers, people who have from one to, maximum, 5 ha for their own consumption and immediate sales.
In Nigeria, cassava consumption for food is about 65% of production. The remaining 35% all goes to the industry, because industries are very few. They are very few because there is a massive challenge with starting industries in Nigeria : one is that it is a capital intensive project, so access to funds has been a challenge and the government is currently trying to tackle this with the Agriculture Development Plan.
Infrastructure is another big challenge. Where you are going to build your factory, not only cassava starch factory, you need to generate your own water, your own electricity, build your own road, you need to do virtually everything !
When one starts out a business like this, what type of financial help do you get ? Because agriculture is on the table now everywhere and in Nigeria. So does financing comes along more smoothly than before?
Everyone is talking about financing being there, but accessing the financing is very cumbersome. There are quite large challenges assessing the finance. In Nigeria, you can get a cut loan, which is a single digit loan of about 9%, which was nice. But to access it, the requirements are just so high when you start out : for example, normally, if you already have a land, it should be a guarantee. But land is not accepted as such.
Because you don't have a title...
No, even when you have the title, it's not going to be accepted. They will be asking for other land properties. But, if I have a farm land, I should be able to acess a loan with this farm land since I will use the money to develop the land.
Today, the biggest challenge in farming, actually, is clearing the land. Because the cost of clearing is quite massive. If I am to clear one hectare of land, I will be spending around 140 000 nairas. If it is dense forests, you could pay up to 200 000 nairas, just to clear. Now, if I am going to cultivate one hectare of land, I will need to spend 260 000 nairas. Normally, if I cultivate that land, I can harvest after 12 to 18 months and I can get the pay back. But with the cost of clearing, you need to amortize it because you cannot get it back in one year. So you probably need to amortize it over 15 years.
Now, where you get that type of money from is a big challenge.
No banks want to do that. So, this is one big area which I think can really encourage farmers. If you have infrastructure to clear the land, then it is much easier to cultivate on it. So government need to get involve in clearing land to help farmers, not only cassava farmers but all farmers.
After clearing the trees and all, the remaining part is land preparation which can be done every season. And because cassava is not a product that you get in 3 or 4 months, you will need to wait for 12 or 18 months before you harvest it. So most peasant farmers will prefer products that get money in very fast like melon, maize, etc. But producing cassava is essential !
The other challenge with cassava cultivation is that cassava has always been cross planted with other crops. So when most of the farmers want to plant cassava, because they know cassava will stay for 18 months, so they put in maize. But because of the interplanting with maize, cassava struggles to get the nutrients from the soil because the maize will fight for nutrients also. This has an impact on the yield of both crops. And this is why you can get a yield as low as 12 t/ha.
Why not intercrop with other crops, better suited ?
This is where a lot of research will need to come in. So it is good to intercrop with something tat will supply with the nutrients the cassava needs, like some legumes. When you plant cassava, after five seasons, we try to do legumes like beans to restore the land. This will enrich the soil before you start using the soil again for cassava. But it is difficult to plant them at the same time as the cassava, because once the cassava starts flowering , it leaves some type of canopy that will not allow anything to grow. The other crops need to grow first.
There are also a couple of other challenges because when you go across the country, the soil types differ, the soil texture differs, so as the soil chemistry. Now every farmer should be able to understand what type of soil it has and the type of cassava he needs to plant. This is often not happening correctly. This is addressing research : people should be able to take a soil sample to a lab close by and get some advice. This currently does not exist. There is the ITTA with whom all the big farms try to work with. But this should be easily accessible to all farmers. There should be an agri store close by, run by the government, where farmers can bring their soil to and tell them : I want to plant cassava" and they can get an advice.
Because there are different types of cassava depending on where you will plant it. For example, if I want to plant cassava with a high starch content, locally some starch content is as low as 15 to 17%. But with an improved variety, it can go as high as 30%. So if I can get higher yield, with higher starch content, then I can make more money. So instead of making from my hectare of land, getting a 12 t yield at 15% starch content, that means that you will be getting 1.7 to 2 t of starch from one hectare of land. But from this same hectare of land, if I can get 25 t at a 30% starch content, so this means I will be getting 7.5 t of starch as against 2 t from this same hectare of land. So, this is where there needs to be some kind of support , studies, facilities like test the kind of soil, access to improved stems, etc.
Now stem development also depends on where you plant it, if it is a water lock area as some are resistant and others not to water. So when you plant the local cassava in a water area, you might get very small yields, to the point that your stems will rot. So these are big issues.
What about infrastructure ?
Yes, infrastructure in terms of accessibility. I do visit a lot of farmers because we have out growers schemes in which we try to train farmers, get them into clusters, support them with infrastructure and provide access to small loans for their cultivation.
Another big challenge the farmer has is being able to access the local areas, in other words, roads ! Some areas are just not easily accessible. So if you think about investing to produce 30 000 to 40 000 t and you try to get it to the major road, by the time you pay to get it to the road, the farmer is not going to get any money from it again.
For all these reasons, their cassava will rot in the ground because often they cannot invest to get it out.
It is said that worldwide, 30% of food is wasted. What would you say the rate is for cassava in Nigeria ?
More than half ! And this is true of all of West Africa.
Out of a conference like the one opening today on cassava and starch in Accra, what do you expect as an agriculture investor and a business man ?
There is something very important about the impact of cassava in the global supply chain. There has been so much emphasis on corn we get from North America because there is now new users for corn -poultry feed, ethanol production, supporting power generation, etc.
But the need for cassava is becoming more important, globally. There are some development currently on polyethylene bags coming from cassava, biodegradable household utensils disposable, etc. So, with the world growing more and more aware of this, trying to reduce pollution that happens as a result of , for example, nylons not biodegradable, then the demand for cassava is definitely grow.
For those of us that are into processing, we have this challenge that you cannot predict the price of cassava.
But this is true of any crop...
Yes, but not having a 300% variation ! There is a three year cycle and prices go s high, and everyone is happy and goes to the farm to cultivate. Then, you have excess production, but not because the system cannot absorb it but because it cannot get where it is needed. The wastage is so high that everybody gets discouraged and goes to another crop. It is the cycle.
So we are trying to encourage big farmers to do more than what they are doing and have a more profitable business.
So at the end of this session, I would like to see the possibility of having farmers have access to financial aid. Because if I can do correctly one hectare on my own, then I can do two hectares. Now, if everyone had the capacity to do this, we would double cassava a cultivation in a short time. And to attain this, availability of infrastructure is a major issue. And private companies cannot build access roads in communities. They can do it for their own plantations but not for other farmers.
Nestlé and other big groups are attending the conference. What, according to you, are they in for ?
For them, cassava is very critical because it is one of the major additive in their products. For them to see cassava starch grow is very important. Because there is always the campaign on increasing the local content in the product. So they are trying to support the growth of cassava and get even more involved in the local value chain of cassava.
Are they in cassava production as such in Nigeria ?
No, but they are trying to see how they can assist the farmers.