Cassava is a major staple food in many countries providing a basic diet for over half a billion people. It is one of the most drought tolerant crops and grows well in the tropical regions. Hence, cassava is capable of growing on marginal soils. Cassava is edible starchy tuberous root. It is a major source of carbohydrates. In fact, cassava is the third largest source of carbohydrates in the tropics after rice and maize.
Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava and Thailand is the largest exporter of dried cassava. Cassava is often called yuca in Spanish and United States of America, however it differs from yucca. Cassava, when dried to a powdery or pearly extract, is called tapioca.
Cassava is native to the South American Country of Brazil. Domesticated cassava is centred in West Central Brazil. It was likely first domesticated more than 10,000 years before the present time. Cassava was first introduced to the African region by Portuguese traders in the sixteenth century. It has, since become one of the most important staple food crops in the African continent. Cassava was initially grown in the forest areas until the turn of the century. Cassava cultivation increased after 1850 in the Eastern Africa region. It was as a result of the efforts of the Arabs and Europeans who recognized the value of cassava as a safeguard during the famine period.
Today, it has become a common food crop in Northern Guinea and Sudan savannah, in areas of high population density. Cassava is now grown far and wide as a food crop and for industrial purposes as more scientists, agriculturist and plant biologists have become aware of its importance mostly in developing countries, where it is most commonly produced.
A few decades ago, cassava was not a major cash crop. However, given the increase in its production to meet rising demand for bio fuel market, livestock feed, and starch, cassava is gradually becoming a major cash crop and driver of industrial development. The crop today has transformed from a humble root crop into a money spinner and a prized industrial input.
Cassava is well recognized for its capacity to address food needs of vulnerable communities. Therefore, with a combination of conventional and new approaches, over 400 cassava genotypes have been developed that are disease and pest resistant, early maturing, and high yielding. The characteristics of the new generation of cassava broke what had been an apparent yield barrier in cassava improvement increasing yields in many locations by at least 50–100% without the use of fertilizer. Today, about 30% of cassava that is cropped in Africa is planted with the improved varieties which pest and multiple disease resistant. This translates to over 13 million tonnes of dry cassava per year which is enough to meet the requirements of 65 million people. The significant gains in the crop’s output in farmers’ fields are not only contributing to the African diet but also propelling commercialization of the crop.
Cassava was introduced to most parts of Asia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Early arrival of cassava was in India, Java and the Philippines. Most of the introductions were by the European explorers who had obtained cassava from South America. Cassava was a major commodity of trade between South America and Europe before arriving to various parts of Asia.
It was initially used as basically as a food for local consumption. It was primarily cultivated by poor farmers on marginal land who often used cassava as emergency food. By mid 19th century, cassava was firmly established in domestic market. It later progressed to become a major cash crop for export and by the first half of 20th century cassava products from Asia is competing well in the world market.
Although the Pacific Islanders complement one of the most intensive users of root crops in the world cassava was not particularly important crop until recently. While cassava remains an important dietary staple and in recent times produced in greater quantities for export to the USA, New Zealand and Australia. Within the Pacific, the largest areas of cassava plantation are in Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga.