DRC: Can Congolese cassava conquer wheat?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa in 2023

By Muriel Devey Malu-Malu
Posted on Saturday, 21 January 2023 10:00, updated on Monday, 30 January 2023 14:59

With 41 million tonnes harvested per year, the DRC is the world's second largest producer of cassava. © Petrut CALINESCU/PANOS-REA

In order for the Democratic Republic of the Congo to become less dependent on grain exports, the state and professional sectors must work to ensure that cassava flour, of which the DRC is the world’s second largest producer, becomes a leading ingredient in the manufacturing of domestically made breads and pastries.

With 41m tonnes harvested yearly, DRC is the world’s second largest producer of cassava, behind Nigeria’s 60m tonnes. That may change soon. To limit wheat imports, the Congolese authorities decided, at the end of 2020, to introduce cassava flour in the manufacture of bread and pastries. With the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, DRC has found itself leaning more into this cassava shift to mitigate wheat-based food security.

This is nothing new, however. Cassava research has been carried out by universities and establishments, like the National Institute for the Study and Research of Agronomics (INERA) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Within this context, Dr. Marie Claire Yandju, a specialist in molecular biology, food biotechnology, and nutrition at the University of Kinshasa (UNIKIN), has worked to develop the standards and conditions for manufacturing cassava flour, a niche in which private companies have entered into in recent years.

A popular plant

It was from 2019 that DRC, through the Integrated Emergency Programme of Community Development (CAPUIDC), initiated an investigation into the cassava plant’s potential uses.

During a nationwide survey, cassava was identified as a priority by grassroots communities, among 12 different agricultural sectors. Dietary habits have spoken to the cassava plant’s increased importance, with cultivation far exceeding the others in terms of areas and tonnes cultivated and produced.

It is the best-known culture among farmers and therefore the most widespread in rural areas

“It is the best-known culture among farmers and therefore the most widespread in rural areas,” says Timothée Mahungu, an agricultural engineer and the general manager of the agro-industrial company Layuka, which specialises in growing cassava and processing it into flour.

Cassava quotas

When the CAPUIDC last convened, it established a project designed to industrialise the cassava sector for the purposes of converting it into a proper replacement for imported wheat. On 20 December 2020, DRC changed Congolese national food industry standards to require a minimum of 5% cassava bread flour for bread making and 10% for pastry products. Cassava bread flour is unfermented, prepared from fresh cassava tubers, and only produced in DRC.

Throughout 2021, tests were carried out with researchers and economic operators such as Agrikom, finding that good bread could be made with 20% cassava flour and pastries with between 80% and 100%.

On the move

April 2022 saw the launch of the DRC’s two-year pilot programme phase with AfDB funding of $40m. Coordinated by CAPUIDC, this pilot phase was implemented through the agricultural, rural, industrial, vocational training, social affairs, humanitarian actions and national solidarity, interior, security, and decentralisation ministries, throughout Kongo-Central, Kwango, Kwilu, and Kasai provinces.

The [farmer] brings the [land], the service provider tills it with modern equipment, provides improved cuttings, supervises the farmers, and buy[s] the produce

During the first stage, the loan must finance the cultivation of cassava crops and development of processing units on at least 10,000 hectares. The project has already begun with two companies in Kongo-Central (Layuka) and Kwango (ECOSAC).

Local industrialisation

Rural households are expected to benefit through the increase of income from this programme. A service provider, regardless of the area in which it will operate, will be required to subcontract part of the land and produce cassava for farmers’ organisations and local private agricultural organisations.

“The [farmer] brings the [land], the service provider tills it with modern equipment, provides improved cuttings, supervises the farmers, and buy[s] the produce to transform it into flour upon agreeing on a purchase price,” says Mahungu.

Processing cassava into bread flour follows the same rules. The time between tuber collection and drying will be expected to take a maximum of 24 hours at a factory established less than 50 km from production sites, complete with local industrialisation initiatives and adaptable technologies.

Strict standards

Quality requires discipline, and this extends to cassava production. Yandju is clear on the manufacture of bread flour, which is “unfermented, odour-less, and free of microorganisms”, and how it requires adequate instant drying (and peeling) equipment. This equipment is available in Kinshasa, where Agrimac manufactures dryers with a capacity of two to five tonnes of flour at unit costs of about $40,000. Resource-pooling is encouraged.

Strict health, hygiene and environmental standards are required throughout the sector’s value chain, from harvesting to the point of sale, as confirmed by Mahungu. A directory of trades is currently being finalised by the ministry of vocational training and employment, and a series of regulations have already been established to ensure its efficacy.

Land identification, security, producer availability, and infrastructure management will all be subject to state-level intervention to ensure that regulations are followed, along with training and community trade centres.

Meet the millers

Initially cautious, wheat flour mills like Minoterie du Congo (Minocongo) and Minoterie de Matadi (Midema), have since reviewed their position since the rise in grain prices.

Can cassava really yield enough flour? Can it meet the challenge? For this to be achieved, cassava production must be tripled. 100kg of cassava can yield between 25kg and 30kg of flour, with some varieties more floury than others, as confirmed by Marie Basila, Agrikom’s manager. Improved varieties of cassava, combined with strict standards ensuring quality and safety, can move eight tonnes of cassava per hectare to between 25 tonnes and 30 tonnes, says Mahungu.

Solutions

There will be questions in need of answers: How will equipment purchases be financed? From where will loans be taken and at what rate? What about water and electricity access? How will transportation infrastructure be ameliorated to ensure proper transport of materials? At the moment, there exists no functioning national road throughout all 145 territories of DRC.

Under these conditions, bringing flour mills closer to production sites as well as purchasing and consumption centres is difficult, especially when many of them remain in urban sectors throughout the country. To answer this question, the intensification phase of the project, which begins this year, provides for the development of rural roads and services for access to production areas. Discussions are underway with the AfDB to obtain financing of $700m for the next three years.

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