Farmers love to experiment, especially in trying out new crop varieties, even if it takes patience to get results. With cassava, for example, one has to wait months or even a couple of years to see what a new variety is like. In 2015, the Nigerian Saint Paul Catholic Mission gave a handful of vitamin A-rich cassava stems to Mary Ntia and her husband Emmanuel. This variety produces a yellow root which, like other yellow vegetables, has a lot of vitamin A. The couple took the new cassava home to their village of Ikot Akpan Ntia, in Nigeriaâ€™s South-South State of Akwa Ibom. The community is so remote that extension agents have not been there in years.
I was visiting the village in May of this year, asking farmers about cassava varieties they grew, and what people wanted to see in new cassava varieties.
Mary and Emmanuel planted their vitamin A cassava and at the end of the rainy season harvested a few plants. The couple liked the large roots, so they replanted the stems in a full-sized garden, intercropped with maize. This garden experiment will allow them to see how the cassava performs under normal field conditions.
Mary and Emmanuel will also test the cassavaâ€™s suitability for processing, once they get enough roots to ferment and toast as gari (see previous story on making gari). They also want to see if the cassava stores well underground. The best varieties can be kept in the field and harvested a year or more after maturity. This is crucial in the humid tropics, where there are few long term techniques for food storage.
Emmanuel dug up one of the older plants. After showing off the large, yellow roots to his visiting social scientists, Emmanuel hospitably invited us to take the stems home. When we demurred, an elderly couple stepped forward. They had been quietly watching and they were keen to start experimenting with vitamin A cassava, so Emmanuel handed them the stalks of the harvested plant. The old couple would cut the stems into pieces and plant them. â€śThis is what we do,â€ť Emmanuel said as he handed over the stems, â€śwe share the stems with our neighbors.â€ť
When a new cassava variety enters a community, farmers grow the variety, share the planting material with others and evaluate the cassava for at least two years, until they feel that they know it. Then farmers will keep sharing and multiplying the new variety. If the new variety meets farmersâ€™ standards, they will keep growing it and sharing it.
So far, most improved cassava varieties find a place in farmerâ€™s fields and gardens. Participatory varietal selection (PVS) is one way of structuring collaboration between smallholder farmers and breeders, to select crop varieties that farmers want to grow. Formal efforts like PVS capitalize on tropical farmersâ€™ inherent creativity and curiosity, but smallholders will still spontaneously share planting material, and experiment on their own.
On this visit, I had the good fortune to be accompanied by Nigerian researchers Adetunji Olarewaju, Tessy Mady and Olamide Olaosebikan.
The field work mentioned in this blog was part of the IITA lead Cassava Monitoring Survey project funded by institutions including RTB (CGIAR research program on Roots, Tuber and Bananas) and IITA.