Helen Zulu writes in the Times of Zambia that escalating mealie meal prices may be solved by increasing cassava production as a substitute for maize. It could help to stabilise the escalating mealie meal prizes as cassava has many advantages when compared with maize both from the agronomic perspective as well as its multiple economic uses. It is also relatively more drought tolerant than maize.
Cassava production has actually been growing rapidly since the early 1990s, as farmers have sought to diversify their food staple production out of maize and into cassava. The removal of heavy subsidies for maize production and marketing coupled with the government withdrawal of a guaranteed maize market, from the early 1990s onward, reduced incentives to grow maize, leading farmers to look for other more profitable crops. At the same time new varieties have come on stream with wider market appeal. Despite the progress, cassava remains extremely under-commercialised, and there are fears that unless the commercial market can be developed further it will all come to a stop.
According to FSRP research, a key constraint in commercialising cassava is the price. As a general rule of thumb, cassava substitution for maize becomes commercially attractive where the price of dried cassava lies about 60% to 70% of the price of maize in Zambia. A low cassava price, in turn, requires high on-farm productivity, low marketing costs and close proximity to processing facilities.
So as well as the need to accelerate expansion of improved cassava varieties and agronomic practices, we must tackle the proximity problem. Cassava price is normally higher than maize price because of the long distances cassava must transit from cassava producing areas (Luapula, Northern and North Western) to the feed and food industries in Copperbelt, Central and Lusaka provinces. Given the high cost of transport in Zambia, it seems that increased cassava production on the Copperbelt, Central and Lusaka provinces offers the best likelihood of making low-cost cassava available to urban consumers. Alternatively we should focus on establishing processing facilities near current major production centres, and hope the economies of scale will lower the cost.
A combination of these initiatives will all contribute to improved incentives for cassava commercialization. Unfortunately, even these initiatives will not be enough as long as we keep subsidising maize heavily! Giving large subsidies on maize and talking about large booms in cassava is contradictory. Again we see the incoherence of current government thinking. Policy after policy it is the same story.