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Innovation Helps Relieve Hunger, Malnutrition in DR Congo

December 2011

With their cassava fields decimated by disease, world cassava markets shrinking, and the country still reeling from the effects of a long civil war, Church leaders in the DR Congo were concerned about their members' welfare. Men, accustomed to working in the fields, found themselves with no gainful employment. Members of all ages were suffering from severe hunger and malnutrition. Church leaders sought help from LDS Charities to salvage this important crop to provide jobs and much needed nourishment.

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Cassava is a woody, edible root that grows well in poor soils with little rainfall. It is the world's third-largest source of carbohydrates, providing a third of the caloric intake to people in sub-Saharan Africa. Because it can be harvested as needed, cassava acts as a famine reserve; however, the edible root is also susceptible to mold and disease, and contains an abundance of toxins, mainly cyanide.

With cassava's many challenges, it remained a major export for the DR Congo and a primary food source for its 71 million people. Unfortunately, the long civil war and an outbreak of disease combined to decimate the country's cassava fields. The shrinking international cassava market caused further distress for the impoverished rural farmers. The resulting effect was severe hunger and malnutrition.

Working with local priesthood leaders, LDS Charities developed a food initiative project that has produced tremendous results and proven to be a great blessing for the people of rural DR Congo.

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"In 2006, we investigated several charitable organizations and universities in the area," said Wade Sperry, field operations manager for the LDS Charities Food Initiative. "One of them — a Nigerian charity named IITA — had developed a virus-free cassava plant. They were willing to help our local priesthood leaders train farmers to produce the new virus-free plants and find new markets."

A three-year project to help families rebuild their agricultural lifestyle was approved. Five hundred families received virus-free plants. With the involvement of local Church leaders, families were taught to better prepare their fields and to improve their post-harvesting methods.

"Fields were being prepared by hand," said Ferren Squires, director of Agriculture Production Services for LDS Charities. "We knew that deeper tillage with mechanical equipment would disrupt the disease and clear up the problem." Fortunately, the governor of the province had just acquired two tractors for Luputa.

"The people also had to learn new agricultural practices such as appropriate irrigation and plant spacing," said Brother Sperry.

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Of the 22 new varieties of cassava developed by IITA, 10 were tested by farmers in late 2009. The new varieties were disease- and pest-resistant, low in cyanide content, drought-resistant, early maturing, and high yielding. They produced sustainable yields 50 percent greater than local varieties.

From this initial harvest, 300,000 cuttings were obtained. These were used to plant an additional 30 hectares (74 acres) of cassava, which yielded 900 tons of roots the first year.

LDS Charities worked with local LDS Church leaders and IITA to construct a small processing facility. The facility includes a shredding machine, a press, a grinding mill and two soaking tanks to help produce a finished product that could be stored or marketed.

Whereas farmers previously just cut, peeled, washed and dried the root, the processing facility added a second wash, grating, fermenting and extraction to reduce mold loss and further improve taste.

The test project has ended, but the story hasn't. Local priesthood leaders continue to manage resources by dividing the farmland between seven LDS branches in the Luputa district.

Families also grow their own cassava, then process it in exchange for a small fee used to maintain the equipment. They often have enough flour to use, preserve for food storage and sell for a small profit in the marketplace. Any surplus is used to help care for the poor and needy.

"This project offers sustainability at its best," said Brother Squires. "These subsistence farmers have improved their self-reliance through increased production, improved marketing and better processing. They have given back to those in need with their surplus product. It's a great success story."

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