Cassava needs fertilizer too

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Efforts to position cassava as an alternative food crop in Africa has failed to take root due to poor application of fertilizer to a plant initially thought to thrive in poor soils, scientists now say.

The report comes barely two months after an international soil fertility meeting in Nairobi low usage of fertilizer especially in Kenya and Tanzania where farmers are said to be applying only 8 kgs as opposed to the required   30 kg per acre resulting in poor harvests and rising shortages of food. The African Union has upped this to 50 kgs per hectare.

According to  Philip Karuri, the country  (Kenya) representative of International Fertilizer Development Center ,  recent studies in Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania  reveal that most farmers apply only a third of the fertilizer they are supposed to use.

The study shows that, Kenyan fertilizer consumption will need to nearly double from 500, 000 to 900, 000 metric tons  annually to meet the agricultural growth targets set in the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme country investment plans.

In the latest development, Dr Nteranya Sanginga, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture director general,  says Africa cannot achieve a “green revolution” without first having a “brown revolution”.  “The current application of 8 kg per ha of soil nutrients, whether organic or inorganic fertilizers, is  very low and is a major setback to the continent’s vision of adequately feeding itself”, he told a gathering of scientists in Kampala last week.

The scientists were in the Ugandan capital for the Global Cassava Partnership that brought together over 400  of them to strategize on how the crop, currently gaining currency as a staple food, can play a bigger role in economic development by exploiting its huge potential as a fresh food and processing crop.

Dr Sanginga charges that the huge investment put into   developing high-yielding cassava varieties that were resistant to some of the major pests and diseases would go to waste if the varieties are grown in poor soils.

He said it was unfortunate that cassava had been tagged for many years as a poor man’s crop that does not require much input such as fertilizers.  The crop harvests as much nutrients from the soil as other plants requiring replenishing and  requires nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to thrive, he added.

“Nutrient use in cassava has been minimal but if we are talking about transformation and   increasing production not only for food but also for commercial use, we must change these wrong perceptions. If we are growing in soils that are too poor for other crops such as maize, we are missing the other half of the equation,” he said.

Dr Sanginga said the African population has been rising rapidly requiring increased production to feed additional mouths. However, increasing population has also been leading to a shortage of land to expand production; therefore the continent has to intensify production.

Cassava production supports more than 25 per cent of farming households in sub-Saharan Africa, equivalent to over 100 million people. Overall, over 60 per cent of the world’s cassava is grown on the continent yet the yields are low, averaging 10 tons per hectare compared to over 40 tons per hectare achieved in Asia and Latin America where the crop is grown for commercial use.

By CATHERINE RIUNGU (catherine@hortinews.co.ke)

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