When I was first posted to the Republic of Congo in mid-2017, a challenge immediately emerged: the United Nations had just launched an emergency appeal to help more than 100,000 displaced and conflict-affected people in the Pool region in the southeast of the country. But there was a problem: the World Food Programme (WFP) had no food stocks available.
So, where possible, the WFP team attempted to facilitate cash-based transfers so that people could buy essential food items — it took four months to receive the stocks of imported rice we desperately needed to ramp up our relief operation.
A question arose: could WFP count on local stocks of cassava flour instead of waiting for rice imports? Cassava happens to be Congo’s number one crop (WFP assists 23,000 people in the country of 5.2 million). From leaf to root, the plant is key to the Congolese diet. In cities, families prepare cassava flour nearly every day.
Buying cassava flour made sense, but it’s tricky: agriculture in Congo is largely subsistence-oriented and cassava processing is 95 percent home-based. The cassava industry in the country is simply not geared to delivering a consistently high-grade output in bulk. At the time, WFP had no experience in purchasing cassava products; we traditionally purchase rice, wheat, corn and beans.
To give it a shot, we identified a mechanized, commercial cassava farm near Brazzaville that was selling products and had a milling machine. They were looking for new customers and were ready to work with us.
So we set about the process of producing up to ten tons of cassava flour a day, working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture — and the University of Greenwich in Great Britain — to ensure quality standards were met.
First, a tractor rips out the mature cassava tubers out of the ground. These are washed and then weighed before being painstakingly peeled and soaked for five days. The tubers are then split into smaller pieces and left under the sun for five days. Once dried, cassava wedges can be sold as they are, or be put through a milling machine to produce the flour.
In the past few weeks, we’ve taken delivery of our first batch— 36 tons of locally-sourced cassava flour. The process took two months, much less than for overseas imports and proved considerably more cost-effective than buying and importing rice.
WFP will be distributing the product through its school meals programmes, along with food items such as locally-sourced beans and vegetable oil. We will work with the Ministry of Education to obtain feedback from cooks and pupils involved and perhaps improve the recipe. We think local cassava flour could also help us respond to emergencies.
COVID-19, the climate crisis and other recent shocks have shown that the shortest food supply chains are, the most effective. Buying locally is also a great way to support local agriculture and improve food security, especially when smallholder farmers are involved.
In Congo, WFP is also working with 500 craft-cassava processors who make sought-after cassava-based products such as gari and attiéké.