ADDIS ABABA -- Farmers in the Horn of Africa should focus on growing more improved cassava varieties, which are high-yielding and resilient to drought, according to researchers.
The improved varieties developed by the Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and tested in Ethiopia, may help tackle famine in the Horn of Africa, an area that was severely hit by drought and hunger in 2011.
IITA took a set of cassava varieties grown in Nigeria and tested them in Ethiopia in collaboration with the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization and Southern Agricultural Research Institute.
The yields of the improved varieties were between 25 and 40 tonnes per hectare, while local varieties give only up to six tonnes per hectare, according to Pheneas Ntawuruhunga, a cassava breeder at IITA.
Such improved varieties could enhance food security in that region, he said during a review meeting of IITA's activities in the Horn of Africa that was held in Ibadan, Nigeria, last month (10 December).
But the region needs to diversify away from grains that are widely grown to focus more on root crops such as cassava, he added.
In many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa, Ntawuruhunga said, it remains an acute challenge to grow enough food to ensure social and economic development.
'Cassava is improving as international researchers, development organisations and African governments increasingly recognise the role it can play in stimulating agricultural growth, improving food security and alleviating poverty,' Ntawuruhunga told SciDev.Net.
He said that studies conducted at IITA in Nigeria and other research centres demonstrated that cassava tolerates prolonged drought, aided by its small leaf canopy and deep rooting system.
These traits make cassava a desirable and adaptable food or feed crop in the tropical regions that are likely to be severely affected by climate change. It can also grow on marginal soils.
Ntawuruhunga added that research shows that 'cassava is potentially highly resilient to future climatic changes and could provide Africa with options for adaptation whilst other major food staples face challenges'.
Solomon Assefa, director general of the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research (EIAR), says that the Ethiopian government attaches great importance to the development of cassava varieties considered crucial to ensuring food security. EIAR is working to spread cassava to achieve this aim, he adds.