A Root Cause

More nutritious cassava makes its debut

Photo of women in Nigeria separating cassava for processing

Yellow cassava is separated from white varieties for processing. Nigeria

Good news came to Nigeria in December 2011—that’s when three new cassava varieties, with the highest vitamin A content to date, were launched. According to researchers, these new varieties could provide Nigeria’s children and women with 25 percent of their daily vitamin A needs.

And they need the help: about 30 percent of the country’s children younger than five years old and 20 percent of its pregnant women suffer from vitamin A deficiency, which can have devastating consequences, especially for children—from increased risk of illness and disease to impaired vision, blindness, and even death.

The vitamin A cassava is a happy union between a yellow Brazilian type with high levels of beta-carotene (which is converted to vitamin A in the body) and white African varieties that have virtually no beta-carotene. After screening nearly 100,000 cassava seedlings a year for 10 years, plant breeders, together with farmers, tested the most promising plants in 13 states across Nigeria. Three selections rose to the top.

How did researchers come to focus on this fat, fleshy root crop? Since it’s eaten daily in Nigeria by poor and rich alike, researchers realized it was an ideal vehicle to provide more vitamin A in the Nigerian diet.

More than 8 million farmers already grow cassava, which is virus resistant and high yielding. A program is now in place to deliver the new varieties to 50,000 of these farmers in 2013, says Paul Ilona, a cassava breeder who is the Nigeria country manager for HarvestPlus, which, along with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and the National Root Crop Research Institute of Nigeria, has supported the work.

By putting vitamin A cassava into the hands of farmers, this ambitious program, with support from the Ministry of Agriculture, aims to get this nutritious variety onto the tables of millions of Nigerians. The crop will likely spread as farmers save stem cuttings and share them with their neighbors, as they have always done. “By mid-2014,” says Ilona, “we’re optimistic that farmers will be growing and feeding vitamin A cassava to their families, reaching as many as 150,000 people.”

There is more to come: researchers are already at work breeding cassava varieties with enough vitamin A to provide up to half of the daily needs of women and children.