Cassava, a crop with unexploited opportunities in Coastal part of Kenya

I was born in Central part of Kenya and schooled in the same regions throughout to University. The first time I experienced farming by any other community was when I was employed by Ministry of agriculture livestock and Fisheries back in May 1997 when I was posted to Nyanza Province. Experience in working with different communities have taught me over the years to appreciate the diversity in cultures, way of living and our different foods in our Country, For the first time when I was posted in Nyanza I was taught to cook and eat small kind of fish locally called “omena”, strange to me that I could eat fish while it seems as if it was still looking at me.

Kilifi North focused grouped discussion

It was with the enthusiasm when I was selected as one of the eight student that were to work on cassava value chain as a Master student in University of Nairobi sponsored by RUFORUM in CARP  project. Our greatest task as students were to solve the challenges along cassava value chain and deliver implementable outputs by farmers and other stakeholders along the value chain aimed at solving the identified challenges. The Counties in focus were Kilifi and Taita Taveta in Coastal part of Kenya. Strange as it seemed having been in the Ministry of Agriculture for the last 23 years but had never been in coastal part of Kenya. It was such an excitement to work in different part of my Country and with communities I had never worked with before. On arrival I noticed the tall magnificent coconut trees, lovely sites and beauty to behold, cashew nut were being sold along the roads, A county rich in nuts, I thought, then we were welcomed with tamarind juice called by the name “mkwanju”, honestly I had never tasted that juice neither had I bothered to know the nutritional value and utilization of tamarinds. My curiosity after that grew to know more about the tamarind, where do they grow best, what are the nutritional values of the fruits and came to realize that it is among the traditional fruits that are of high nutritional value that have remained underutilized in my country.

 Rose and farmers enjoying raw cassava during data collection

The next day when we were going to meet farmers, I noticed maize crop that was not looking very good, estimation of yields using my eyes and my extension experience over the years, 1 bag per acre. I did a quick calculation on family utilization, an average family size of six, four children, mother and father, average consumption of maize 1 bag per person per year, the family will require 6 bags of maize and 3 bags of legumes to be food secure, translation of scenario was food insecurity, Then I thought, if only the farmers would have grown cassava which was draught tolerant and not as vulnerable as maize by the harsh weather conditions, then the issue of food security would be at least half solved. I just felt the seal to communicate with the farmers at least to consider planting more cassava instead of maize, my extension passion drove me and all I wanted was just to change a few if not all as I collect my data through focused group discussion.

When I started focused grouped discussions, I noticed that it was not easy to do farming in this environment. Having been born in the Kenyan highlands, where rains were heavy and reliable throughout the year, food was plenty in the house and we used to be forced to drink milk as children. We used to cheat sometimes just to skip a night without drinking milk and would celebrate the achievement. When I started the interview, it hit me hard, rainfall is very low and highly unpredictable, one year it may be there, and it can disappear for the next 3 to four years. Sometimes when it rains it is very heavy it causes floods, when if disappear it is so severe and there is drought, all crops dry and there is hardly anything in the farms. It dawned on me, not easy as I thought, even my cassava can take three years before they can have a successful crop being stablished. I realized it takes more than just a focused group discussion, study of rainfall patterns, amount of rainfall in good years, study all possible crops and precipitation and temperature requirements so that to come with a long term plan and crop combination that can solve the problem of food insecurity in Kenyan Coast. I understood, sometimes you may think that the farmers are not doing enough until you visit the ground, sit with them, listen to then, know the challenges they have experienced over the years then realize that unless somebody above the farmers thinking come up with a strategy the problem of food insecurity in some parts of our country will persist forever.

The green island of cassava in a dry area in Kishushe, Taita Taveta County

Cassava was the crop of target. I had not eaten much of cassava since from the community I come from it was considered as a poisonous crop. Though as a grown up I had learnt to mix cassava flour with millet and cook porridge a skill learnt from my first posting in Nyanza region, but that was all the cassava that was consumed in my house. I learnt that cassava had much more utilization from human food, to livestock and poultry feed. For the first time I knew that cassava is intercropped and rarely grown as pure stand. The entire reason for intercropping cassava was purely small sizes of land and not for other reason like weed management, nutrient utilization and pests/diseases management. I appreciated the farmers’ effort in land utilization and unknowingly practicing other good crop husbandry in cassava farming. But a general observation during interview very few youth were involved in farming activity an observation that was in agreement with other parts of my Country based on my experience in extension. Talking casually with some youth during questionnaire administration reviewed that youth didn’t own land and therefore didn’t feel empowered to plant crop. The other factor was that farming cannot generate a regular income as compared to an activity like motorbike transport system.

Farmers collecting cuttings from neighbors’ farm

In Taita Taveta the weather was quite diverse from highland cool weather at Wundanyi to warm/hot dry weather in lower regions of kishushe. The terrain was also diverse while around Wundanyi was hilly with very steep slopes Kishushe and bololo areas were flat. I noticed the beautiful baobab trees which I saw for the first time. The vegetation was from beautiful big forest in highlands to dry grassland with scattered shrubs in low lands. I realized that Taita Taveta can grow many range of crops since the county is rich in many agro ecological zones from the crops that can do well in temperate climate like Irish potatoes and garden peas to those that do well in dry regions like Mangoes and pawpaw. A county of diversity that is rich in natural resources like rivers that can be exploited to increase irrigation capacity and biodiversity in rich forest, I thought. My attention was in particular drown by very green cassava in Kishushe area which was looking like a green island in the middle of a desert. It seemed so because all the surrounding farms were very dry without life. It was evident to me that cassava is quite drought tolerant and if planned properly so that it is established when there is just enough moisture in the soil, it can be among the best solutions to food insecurity in the drought prone areas.

Just a few challenges experienced during experimental layout

My field experiments gave the best field experience challenges faced by farmers. I established my first field experiments in November 2018. First challenge was cuttings availability, the cuttings were only in Lunga Lunga, Kwale County approximately 170 km from Kilifi County and approximately 360km from Taveta, Taita Taveta County. Transportation of cassava cuttings was the next challenge both the means and the packaging. Later I was to notice that both affected the sprouting of the cuttings. While handling during packing and loading affecting the sprouting points, the time taken to transport the cuttings from Kwale to Kilifi and then Taita Taveta affected the time taken to plant the cuttings. My experience was that the longer it took to plant the poorer the sprouting of the cuttings. The loss of cutting moisture posed yet another challenge. The more moisture was lost the more vulnerable the cuttings became to termites infestation. Some of the unprecedented pests also attacked my experiments sites from monkeys that uprooted all my legumes intercrops looking for seeds, to tortoise that grazed on all my legumes intercrops in another experimental site, to termites that tunneled through my cuttings. Too much rain also affected the sprouting due to water logging that caused rotting. All these challenges made me to plant the experiments 8 different times without success. I imagined the kind of challenges the farmers face each single year and appreciated that they must have very optimistic spirits if they never give up trying. The best experience was that some pests that are never considered or taught as pests may actually be causing farmers harm than those documented and taught as pests.

In conclusion I noticed a few things during my experimental set up, focused group discussion and casual interaction with the community. That they are many unexploited crops that can do well and be promoted in marginal parts of my country. Such are like indigenous fruits like baobab and tamarinds. Some trees can be identified from the rich forest in Taita Taveta County and be promoted as commercial trees for medicine and perfumes instead of them being protected as endangered trees. If farmers are given opportunity to grow such for income generation such trees will never be endangered again and technology like tissue culture can be used to rapidly multiply and propagate them. If tree farming, fruit farming, short season drought tolerant season like green grams, cow peas, pigeon peas e.t.c. and medium drought tolerant crops like cassava can be combined, a farming model can be developed which when adopted by the farmers can solve food insecurity problem while increase the farmers income. Setting experimental plots in farmer’s farms is not easy as compared to controlled environment, but it gives the real case scenario and can reveal other challenges that are faced by farmers that need to be address if the farmers’ situations is to be changed positively. If youth has to be encouraged to do farming technologies that require minimum or no land and enterprise that must ensure continuous and reliable income generation must be developed.

By Rose N. Kamau




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