Cassava is an important food crop that farmers forgot

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The production of maize and other crops has led to many farmers abandoning important crops such as cassava. In many parts of Kenya, farmers now rely on maize, potatoes, wheat, beans or rice as their main sources of food. Due to these modern trends, important tuber and cereal crops such as cassava and millet have been abandoned and are now regarded as orphan or forgotten crops.

In some communities in Kenya cassava is largely viewed as food for the poor. But this is a very wrong perception. Indeed, cassava is one of the most important food crops that every farmer should grow in their farm or backyard. Unlike maize, cassava can grow with very little rain especially when other crops have failed. Cassava is rich in carbohydrates, calcium, vitamins B and C, and essential minerals.

Besides food, cassava can be used in other foods, confectionery, sweeteners, glues, plywood, textiles, paper, animal feed and alcohol.

Figure 1: A cassava cutting

Establishment: Cassava is propagated by cuttings (Figure 1). Because it is a root crop, cassava requires sandy clay loams that are well drained. Poor soils should be fed with compost to increase the organic matter level and overall fertility. In case of shallow soils, mounds or ridges should be created to increase the topsoil volume per plant. In deep soils, cassava should be planted on flat land.

Planting time: Cassava is normally planted in April at the beginning of the long rain season and in September at the start of the short rains. However, earlier plantings in March and August respectively, can significantly increase root yields.

Figure 2: Better cuttings are from the middle portion of the stem

Varieties: Six cassava varieties that are tolerant to the major cassava pests and diseases are available at KALRO-Kakamega and with some selected farmers in the cassava producing counties of Busia, Bungoma, Kakamega, Siaya and Migori. The varieties are: Migyera, MH95/0183, MM96/1642, MM96/9308, MM96/4271 and MM97/0293. Cassava cuttings for these varieties are available for sale at KALRO-Kakamega and with some farmers for sale.

Preparation of planting materials: Choose healthy, disease free planting material (sets) from vigorously growing plants 8-15 months old. Select cuttings from the middle stem portions that are 25 cm long with an average of 9-12 nodes (Figure 2) and or 15-20cm using ministem method of 3-5 nodes (recommended). Cut sets using a handsaw or clean, sharp machete or panga. In cases of scarce cassava cuttings, rapid multiplication can be used to build the numbers for propagation.

Figure 3: Angular planting

Method of planting: Angular planting (where the cutting is not planted straight but slanted as in Fig. 3) is recommended in areas of high rainfall. Ensure two-thirds of the cutting is in the soil and a third above the soil at an angle of 45° to ensure more compactly arranged roots (Figure 3). Do not plant the cuttings upside down. Vertical planting (straight planting) can be done in sandy soils to ensure roots go deeper. Horizontal planting is better in dry conditions. The whole cutting is buried in the soil (Figure 4). One acre holds about 4,000 cuttings.

Planting space: It is advisable to interplant cassava with other crops like maize, and beans to make better use of the land, reduce soil erosion and the risk of crop loss. The ideal spacing is 1m by 1m for the branching type and 1m by 0.8m for the non-branching type. All the above recommended cassava varieties are the branching type. Cuttings that do not sprout within 3 to 4 weeks of planting should be removed and replaced immediately. New cuttings should be planted in new hills (or planting excavations), not the old ones.

Figure 4: Horizontal planting

Weeding: The first weeding is done 3 to 4 weeks after planting. Second weeding at 8 to 12 weeks after planting; and the third weeding at 20 to 24 weeks after planting. Weeding is done by use of a hand hoe (jembe). The first 3-4 month is extremely critical for weed control if the expected yields have to be achieved. With good management an acre of cassava can produce upto 16 tonnes.

Harvesting: The commonly used method in harvesting cassava is hand harvesting. If the tubers are for processing, cut the plant at about 30 – 50 cm above the ground 2 to 3 weeks before harvesting (this causes tubers to mature and increase yields by up to 10%). Use the stem to lift the roots when harvesting. Pull the plant gently and do not drag the roots. Dragging can cause bruises and cuts which may lead to early deterioration. If the soil is compact, loosen it but take care not to damage the roots. Separate the roots from the stem using a sharp knife. Cut each root near to the stem. Do not break the roots from the stump by hand. This will cause injuries which lead to root rot.

After harvesting, do not leave the roots under the sun. Too much heat causes weight loss and early deterioration. Put the tubers in crates or bags then cover them with moist jute bags to prevent vascular (blue) streaking. It takes 20 people to harvest one acre of cassava in one day.

Post-harvest handling

Cassava tubers attached to the main stem can remain safely in the ground for several months. They can be harvested piecemeal when needed. This is useful when cassava is used for home consumption. After harvest, the roots start deteriorating within 2 – 3 days, and rapidly become of little value for consumption or industrial use. Therefore, processing should be done if cassava is harvested in large quantities.

This article is contributed by Josphat Mulindo and Ishmael Njarro, scientists at KALRO - Kakamega. Farmers can contact them on 0706 282 819.

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