Democratic Republic of Congo

DRC’s Key Food Source Is Under Threat — From a Virus

The presence of cassava brown streak disease often isn’t confirmed until farmers lose most of their crop. Will a solution to this latest plague also come too late?

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DRC’s Key Food Source Is Under Threat — From a Virus

ZITA AMWANGA, GPJ DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

Rodrigue Katuwene inspects a cassava plant in his field in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo.

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KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Asha Sabiti grew cassava on her 2 hectares of land (nearly 5 acres) for eight years before she finally concluded it was a bad investment.

As was the case with many farmers around her in Kisangani, a city in the northern part of DRC, cassava had been failing Sabiti year after year. Forget metric tons. Sabiti didn’t even get yields from the annual produce in kilograms. Finally, in 2018, she switched to rice, a decision she believes was the best she could do for her family’s survival.

In the central vegetable market in Kisangani, where farmers like Sabiti bring their produce, vendors once filled rows and stacks of stalls with cassava. The starchy tuber, which looks like a sweet potato but has thicker skin, is consumed in several forms here, mostly as fufu (fermented flour) and chikwangue (a traditional bread made of cassava flour cakes wrapped in dry banana leaves).

The Congolese diet is built on cassava. The crop plays a key role in ensuring food security, and it generates income for small-farm producers throughout Central Africa, particularly in DRC. Only now, residents face a serious scarcity of cassava due to the cassava brown streak disease. It has left Kisangani in a state of crisis, with experts worried that if immediate measures aren’t taken, cassava might disappear from the country.

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ZITA AMWANGA, GPJ DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

Rodrigue Katuwene displays the effects of brown streak disease on his cassava.

One hectare of land (about 2.5 acres) could ideally produce 45 metric tons of cassava (nearly 50 tons), says Monde Godefroid, a professor at Kisangani’s Institut Facultaire des Sciences Agronomiques de Yangambi. But because of the disease, he says that production has fallen more than 80%, to 7 metric tons (nearly 8 tons).

It attacks cassava after the roots become physiologically mature, which means farmers aren’t able to assess the extent of the damage until the roots are harvested. Crops affected by the disease exhibit only subtle exterior signs, like stunted stems, as well as yellowed leaves, much like the African cassava mosaic disease. Confirmation is a chocolate color that seeps into the tuber, but that’s only found when the tuber is harvested and sliced in half. For that reason, the disease can cause 100% crop loss, unlike the African cassava mosaic disease, where some part of the crop can still be saved, Godefroid says.

Leaf symptoms consistent with the disease were first seen in some parts of DRC in 2012, but its existence, Godefroid says, was not officially declared in Kisangani until 2019.

“This virus is way deadlier than the African cassava mosaic disease, and if we don’t take immediate action, I am worried that the cassava risks disappearing from DRC,” he says.

"If we don’t take immediate action, I am worried that the cassava risks disappearing from DRC." Professor at Institut Facultaire des Sciences Agronomiques de Yangambi

With the scarcity of cassava in the market, prices have risen. A cassava basket that in 2018 sold at 6,000-7,000 Congolese francs ($3-$3.50) now sells at 20,000 francs ($10). Those who can afford it are paying whatever the market demands. But for the rest, buying cassava is now a luxury. Instead, says Didy Onautchu, researcher at the Faculty of Sciences, University of Kisangani, many people opt for more affordable options, such as rice, bananas, potatoes and yams.

Carol Musuamba, a housewife, says cassava is all she grew up eating. But now, with the market filled with bad produce and at such high rates, she doesn’t know what to do. “I have eight children, but due to the increase in the price of cassava flour, I can no longer feed them sufficiently.”

With its high carbohydrate content in the form of starch, cassava is very filling and provides a lot of energy, nutritionist Dominique Sekuma says. Additionally, the capacity of the plant to produce even under adverse climatic conditions and in poor soils, and the fact that it can be stored easily for longer periods of time, makes it an ideal food-security crop.

Farmer Rodrigue Katuwene has been cultivating cassava on his 4 hectares of land (nearly 10 acres) for a decade. And even though yields have been falling since 2018, he still cultivates the crop with the hope that the situation will change as he experiments with different varieties.

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Farmers like Katuwene say they’re waiting for government help, but Godefroid questions officials’ interest. As a member of Central and West African Virus Epidemiology, an international research program working toward food security in Africa, Godefroid prepared a risk plan to show that if efforts are not made by the government urgently, cassava could disappear from the region in 2025. He presented the plan to the Ministry of Agriculture in 2020, but Godefroid says he didn’t get much response. In March, Godefroid intends to start a large-scale awareness campaign to inform farmers of the dangers of the disease and also about the precautions they could take.

Over the past 30 years, DRC has successfully introduced cassava varieties with different types of genetic resistance. But diseases evolve over time to fight those traits, requiring a more proactive approach to deal with the sustained crisis.

François Bondele, an agronomist at the Division of Provincial Inspection of Agriculture of the National Extension Service, a central government body that supervises farmers, says the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and the National Seed Service are “working together to find ways to block the disease by allocating new seeds that will be able to fight the disease.”

But he stresses that due to budget restraints, the government hasn’t been able to do much. At least for now, farmers like Sabiti and Katuwene must fend for themselves.

Zita Amwanga is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo.


Translation Note

Megan Spada, GPJ, translated this article from French.