This year the cassava fields of farmer Pamela Nyirenda have not just brought her a secure harvest, but a financial windfall as well: buyers snap up the tubers to produce ethanol for alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
As the coronavirus pandemic hits Africa, cassava flour in Zambia is this year selling for up to 5,000 kwacha ($270) a tonne, a steep rise from less than 2,000 kwacha last year at this time, according to the Zambia National Farmers Union.
Small-scale farmers like Nyirenda say they’re fast reaping the benefits of switching to hardier crops, both in terms of better food security in a time of uncertainty and more income.
“This is my second year cultivating [it] and I have managed 10 tonnes of cassava tubers,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview. She said she expects to earn nearly twice as much from her cassava this year as last.
As they struggle with longer and more frequent droughts linked to climate change, a growing number of farmers in Zambia – and across sub-Saharan Africa – are switching to water-saving crops more likely to ensure a harvest, even in poor conditions.
Musika, a Zambian agricultural non-profit, noted than over 25,000 farmers in Zambia - many of them women - are now growing particularly drought-tolerant varieties of cassava, up from 5,000 five years ago. Pamela Hamasaka, head of corporate affairs for Musika, said demand for cassava ethanol has surged in Zambia as companies rush to churn out more hand sanitiser to control the spread of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.