Feature Article of Friday, 16 March 2012
Columnist: Osei-Sarfo, Kodwo
By Kodwo Osei-Sarfo
Cassava, “manihot esculenta” is one of the most “disgraced” crops in Africa, which Ghana is not exception. Apart from fufu, cassava is considered as the poor man’s food. Amongst its numerous derivative uses as food is abetee or konkonte served with palm or groundnut soup. This food has other derogatory names such as lapeewa, face the wall, etc. Despite its downgrading nature, it is one of the crops that have made countries like Thailand royal. In fact, as cocoa is to Ghana so is cassava to Thailand, as cassava production has fuelled economic growth and economic development.
Ghana is the third largest producer of cassava in Africa after Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a crop with very low production cost, extremely resilient, and performs well on marginal lands. Cassava is cultivated by over 90% of Ghana’s farming population and it constitutes 22% of the country’s agricultural GDP. In fact, the crop can grow all over the country. It is no wonder that the African Union declared cassava as the crop of the decade (2000 – 2010). Extensive research has been undertaken throughout West Africa under various institutions like C: AVA, IITA, and FRI. In Ghana, there is an ongoing project called RTIMP under the MOFA. Despite all these support, not enough has been done by the government to uplift cassava image to its industrial usage.
The Ayensu Starch Company (ASCO) was established in 2003 by NPP government in an attempt to commercialize the crop. Unfortunately, it was saddled with political, technical and financial problems. For such a crop to help alleviate poverty, private financing or intervention is the key to turn around this wonder crop in Ghana as has recently been done in Mozambique and soon to be rolled out in South Sudan and Nigeria through collaborative arrangements between SABMiller Breweries and DADTCO (Dutch Agricultural Trading Company). This partnership came about as a result of the efforts by the two companies to remove two main drawbacks. These are the high moisture content over 70 percent making transportation of tubers over long distances uneconomic, and it’s rapid deterioration after harvesting necessitating the use of the tubers within 48 hours. These problems, SABMiller overcame by using DADTCOs mobile unit to process the tropical root plant at the point of harvest.
SABMiller is a South African multinational brewery company. It is the second largest producer of beer in the world. It owns Accra Brewery Limited and Voltic Ghana Ltd. DADTCO’s long term vision for cassava is to spur rural industrial development, helping raise incomes for producers, processors and traders while contributing to the food security status of its producers and consumers, by a shift from cassava as principally a sustenance food to an industrial crop used in the processing of ethanol, starch, pellets, and high quality cassava flour (HQCF) to replace wheat imports. DADTCO has developed an innovative mobile cassava processing technology called the AMPU (Autonomous Mobile Processing Unit) that processes cassava roots to cassava cake, and moves from one production area to the next to collect the harvest of local farmers.
This Mozambique project was first targeted in Ghana but could not take off due to various obvious reasons. In Mozambique, the cassava beer has been targeted to the rural population who drink hard liquor from unhygienic and dangerous processing methods that cost the Mozambique government millions of dollars in uncollected excise (not forgetting the toxic health risk implications which add to government health expenditures).
Since its inception last year, sales have dramatically increased leading to an increase in regular income for the rural cassava farmers. The government has also received extra income from hitherto an area where she used to get nothing from traditional or non-commercial brewers. There was an initial fear that the cheap beer from cassava will result in lots of regular beer drinkers going for the new innovative beer. However, this fear is unfounded as city dwellers continue to drink their normal city beer which has a relatively inelastic demand. The marketing arrangements targeted to the rural folk have been so successful that the Mozambique government and SABMiller are considering extending this collaboration to other regions. According to a report released by the International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP), the consumption of illicit or non-commercial alcohol is widespread in many countries worldwide and contributes significantly to the global burden of disease. A qualitative study by FAO in Ghana on akpeteshie and a study conducted by “Medical News Today” corroborated this assertion and also further found out that the alcohol mainly consumed is illicit.
This social canker is what SABMiller intends to remove besides getting additional revenue and improving its corporate social responsibility. According to SABMiller Managing Director, Mark Bowman, “the cassava beer price has been pitched at 75% of mainstream beer brands and targets consumers in rural areas”. “At a 75% price point we want to attract consumers to move up from the illicit and home-made brews they would tend to consume,” . He further mentioned that the unregulated, informal market in Africa could be four times bigger than the normal formal market in Africa. This implies a huge market where the government can earn revenue and at the same time reduce health risks associated with dangerous alcohol produced by the unregulated market. By using cassava, SABMiller has partially replaced barley, the traditional raw material used to brew beer, with a common crop grown by local small-scale farmers. The Mozambican Impala beer is brewed using a 70:30 mix of cassava and barley. Initial annual demand for cassava is 40,000 MT and will provide a big boost to local communities. “The project will create jobs for 1,500 new smallholder farmers,” says SABMiller CEO Graham Mackay. Besides these advantages, SABMiller is increasing local sourcing of raw materials to 50% of Africa requirements. Ghana will enjoy all these advantages if Ghana government supports this project to take off as it has been done in other countries like Mozambique and many others. DADTCO is also partnering with IFDC, an international centre for soil fertility and agricultural development – under the Cassava+ Project to improve incomes for smallholder farmers and their families. The Programme’s activities will lead to an increase in cassava yields from an approximate range of 8 to 15 tons to 20 tons and highers of fresh roots per hectare. For the small scale farmer this signifies that, the guaranteed market is having a direct impact in the improved livelihood of thousands of people.
Cassava+ is also supporting the sustainable land use and management of natural resources as these factories get off the ground. Benefits associated from this include building knowledge infrastructure (training and education), building supply chain infrastructure with virus free cutting, reaching as many small scale farmers as possible and monitoring the impact on land and community. The above analysis clearly indicates that if the Ghana government supports this project, all the stakeholders could benefit through these collaborative efforts and this will also contribute to achieving Millennium Development Goals 1, 7 and 8, which aimed at eradicating extreme poverty and hunger , ensuring environmental sustainability and land management technologies and developing a global partnership for development respectively.
The opportunities for commercial production of cassava will encourage some youth back into farming. Benefits abound and they include improved access to markets, increased productivity, and improved market information will be made available to farming families involved in this project. Governments in Uganda and Mozambique have supported these initiatives with reduced excise on beers using high levels of local content. A similar government intervention will soon be done in Nigeria and South Sudan. The Ghana government can also make similar intervention to encourage the commercial breweries to use cassava for local production of beer.
This is therefore a win-win situation with the government not investing any money in the project. Though all stakeholders will benefit tremendously, the government to a larger extent is the real winner. This is because the initial capital investment by SABMiller is huge and whilst the farmer and the government benefit straight away from the project. SABMiller may have to wait to recoup their profits at a later time. In addition, the cassava based beer is of very good quality and contains no health risk at all which is not the case with the illicit alcohols with its associated government health expenditure. Other major benefits to be gained by the government are increased excise receipts, forex savings on imports, increased employment and income in the farming sector, rural development, health benefits from bringing down average alcohol content in the informal commercial illicit spirit market, opening up and commercialising a whole new industry that can have spinoffs in paper making, wood industry, bio-fuels, and contribute massively to food security.
Besides, cassava beer targets the local and the illicit alcohols brewers mostly who do not pay any excise duty to the government and for that matter the nation gets no revenue from them. With this initiative, the governments will get extra income mainly from SABMiller, staff of SABMiller and other ancillary income from agro chemical sellers and other services to be provided to SABMiller. Despite all these advantages, their prices must be much cheaper than Premium Beers like Star and Club. That can only be obtained by reducing the rate of excise on the cassava based beer to allow this product to compete in a market where no excise is paid at all. That is levelling the playing field. This rate can be for example 20% of the rate applicable to the premium beers so that the Government gets EXTRA excise from a market segment of illicit alcohol where she was not getting any excise at all before. The Ghana government gets rural development because the farmers can grow cassava for a market guaranteed by the beer breweries. It would therefore be worthwhile for the government to give any initial support required to kick start the project in our beloved country which has cassava in abundance.