In 2015 Apeel Sciences, in cooperation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began addressing Nigeria's cassava loss problem in a new way.
If you're not one of the 70 million people who get more than 500 of your daily calories from this crop, then you've likely experienced it only as tapioca pudding. In fact, cassava (from which tapioca is made) is the world's third-largest source of starch—and it's even gluten free.
Cassava may be off the produce radar for most Americans, but millions across Sub-Saharan Africa depend on the tuberous, carbohydrate-rich root as a staple food crop. Nigeria, with a population of 180 million, produces 54 million metric tons of cassava per year, which is fully 80 percent of global production.
Yet Nigeria accounts for only ten percent of the world's cassava exports. These figures might suggest the West African nation efficiently consumes nearly all the cassava it grows, leaving little left over for export.
The unfortunate reality is that before it can be sold and eaten. This is due to a combination of the root's rapid rate of deterioration and two features of the country's food distribution infrastructure: poor roads and lack of refrigeration.
While cassava is hearty and easy to grow, its shelf life is extremely short. After two days the root quickly develops cyanide as postharvest physiological decay (PPD) sets in. Considering that 91 percent of Nigerians shop in open air markets, the time window for getting cassava from grower to consumer in edible condition is short indeed.
Harvested cassava's fleeting lifespan also means a facility that processes the root starch into products (such as High Quality Cassava Flour, gari, fufu, or ethanol) must exist in a very small radius relative to a farmer's field — or else the crop can't make it to the processor in time.
The result of underdeveloped produce delivery systems and a vital crop that spoils quickly is chronic lack of access to domestic markets (much less export ones) for cassava farmers in Nigeria, where over half of the population lives in poverty, and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Finding an effective solution for postharvest loss
In 2015 Apeel Sciences, in cooperation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began addressing Nigeria's cassava loss problem in a new way. We have demonstrated in repeated field trials that our postharvest protection formula for cassava extends the marketable shelf life of cassava, delaying the onset of decay without refrigeration.
In the near future, this technology can enable greater quantities of fresh cassava to reach more distant processing facilities, and also increase the quantity and quality of cassava products available to shoppers in open air markets.
What does doubling of cassava shelf life mean for smallholder farmers? It can mean a dramatic increase in sales, which can be a path from poverty to abundance. Charles Frazier, Ph.D.
Nigeria's ideal cassava-growing conditions enable year-round production. As the bane of postharvest loss is overcome, the nation may one day emerge as a major cassava exporter.
Cassava is a staple food in many countries of West Africa and the Caribbean.
Made from cassava roots, gari (also called tapioca) is a popular West African food.
Fufu is made from cassava flour mixed with water and ground into a sticky ball.
Dr. James Rogers, Apeel CEO & Science Director, pulls up some cassava on one of his trips to Nigeria.