Nigerian farmers make money by selling cassava seed of high yielding varieties

Nigerian farmers make money by selling cassava seed of high yielding varieties

The demand for the seed of new cassava varieties is increasing in Nigeria. Until recently, there was no reliable supply of that seed partly because farmers were not used to buying it. As that is changing, village seed entrepreneurs (VSEs) have been organized to grow certified seed of high-yielding cassava varieties. Smallholder farmers, many of them women, are making money from this new seed business which is key to the sustainable adoption of new varieties.

In much of the world, new cassava fields are started by replanting cuttings from a mature plant, either from one’s own field or from a neighbor’s farm. In Nigeria this is starting to change, as new, high-yielding cassava varieties are increasingly becoming popular, spurred by growing demand to produce local foods like gari and fufu, partly to eat locally and partly for sale in the cities. The demand for improved varieties for industrial processing into starch and high-quality cassava flour is also increasing. What’s been missing is a reliable provider of good quality seed of such varieties. Previously, campaigns would give stems away for free, but after the end of the project, the new varieties were no longer available. As the cassava market matures in Nigeria, the seed market is now expanding as farmers want a reliable supply of new varieties.

To respond to that demand, the VSEs in Benue State are turning cassava stems into a profitable business, as part of the Building an Economically Sustainable, Integrated Cassava seed System (BASICS) project, led by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas, which is helping VSEs to establish their seed businesses. BASICS has planted 145 demonstration plots of seven improved varieties and two local check varieties for comparison. All the demo plots are clearly laid out and labeled, and the ones in Benue are planted next to main roads where everyone passing by can see the fields and their large, informative signs.

BASICS partner, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), helps the VSEs to promote the improved varieties at local markets, where hundreds of farmers visit on market days. A team of VSEs arrives at the market in a van, playing music, and dancing to draw a crowd. The VSEs show samples of large cassava roots, much bigger than those farmers are used to—and the big roots pique curiosity. VSEs distribute flyers and chat with curious farmers and explain where they may go to buy stems. Some of the farmers buy a sample of three stems, each one a meter long (enough to plant about 12 cassava plants) for 50 NGN (USD 0.14) or a bundle of 50 stems (enough to plant about 200 cassava plants on 165 square meters) for between 500 and 1000 NGN (USD 1.40 to USD 2.80). These small seed sales allow farmers to test the new varieties on their farms. Satisfied customers may contact VSEs later to buy more seed.

A VSE sells bundles of cassava stems as part of a market promotion by the BASICS program in Benue State, Nigeria. (CRS)

BASICS held 35 market day promotions in 2019, reaching over 30,000 people and sharing more than 60,000 flyers and posters. During these events, about 8,300 bundles of certified stems were sold at the markets.

To become seed producers, the VSEs must learn new skills, such as how to certify their seed, and how to produce more stems, by growing cassava plants closer together. The VSEs also must buy certified foundation seed and manage stem production. This investment pays off; some of the VSEs have been able to make USD 1,900 over two years from a one-hectare seed plot.

Although the VSEs are growing several improved varieties, demand is so high for one of them, “TME 419”, that the entrepreneurs can’t produce enough of these stems. The seed customers like TME 419 because it is high-yielding, and the stem is straight and tall (making it easy to transport), but it also has a catchy name. Merely by chance, 419 is also an infamous anti-fraud section of the Nigerian penal code. This helps customers to easily remember the number of this high-yielding cassava variety.

One of the VSEs’ customers, Ruben, explained, the VSE sold stems to me and I planted as instructed. The germination of ‘sticks’ (stem cuttings) of 419 was wonderful; growth was wonderful. If I told my neighbors, I feared they would cut my stems. I kept the thing quiet. Then the soil started cracking as the roots swelled. The roots were immense.

Many of the VSEs are women, and they are also making money from cassava stems. Cordelia Ortoho is a VSE who started growing certified cassava seed in 2016. I have been able to buy plots of land, feed my family, pay for school fees, she says. I sold 615 bundles worth USD 1,700 last year.

Putting in place seed businesses that make money augurs well for the sustainable adoption of new varieties that combine higher yields with the other key traits which farmers and processors need.