In 2005, Félicien Simpunga cleared his 8 hectares of land and planted cassava in Ruhango district. Yields have always been impressive year after year.
When the Kinazi cassava processing factory was established in 2012, it became its main customer. Simpunga decided to set up a small factory to process dried raw cassava into flour and sold it at a higher price than raw cassava.
However, in 2014 Simpunga lost almost everything after an outbreak of Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD), known locally as Kabore.
The eight hectares of his cassava plants were infested and had to be uprooted.
“I had taken out a bank loan of Frw 15 million which I was unable to repay. My four children could no longer go to school. All the workers on my farm also lost their jobs and income,” Simpunga said.
Cassava brown streak disease has spread to other cassava producing districts including; Gisagara, Muhanga, Nyanza, Ruhango, Kamonyi and Bugesera. The loss was so huge.
Rwanda has resorted to importing a highly resistant cassava variety from neighboring Uganda.
Cassava is a staple food for 200 million people on the African continent. However, the crop periodically suffered from mysterious infestations of cassava mealybug and brown streak virus.
Years later, Kenya ordered its scientists to research a better variety of cassava that would withstand such attacks – and the answer was a genetically modified variety.
After seven years of intense research into the controversial genetically modified cassava, the Kenyan government has finally approved the outdoor cultivation and consumption of this new species.
This latest development is expected to disrupt scientific research within the East African Community which has resisted the adoption of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Kenya’s GM cassava now becomes the first food crop to be approved for field cultivation. In 2019, Kenya approved GM cotton and farmers are already growing the first crop of this variety.
According to Musoni Augustin of Rwanda, a pioneer plant breeder, the adoption of GMOs has its own advantages and disadvantages.
“There is little debate about the adoption of GMOs in Rwanda. But we usually discuss this topic in our labs,” Musoni told Taarifa on Friday.
Musoni also says that many African countries have been reluctant to adopt such genetically modified organisms, however, he noted that many of these countries import GMOs and consume them without their knowledge.
“Rwanda imports maize seeds from South Africa where such biotech science has been legally supported,” he said, adding that many other genetically modified foods are imported and consumed.
Kenya’s approval of genetically modified cassava could trigger many scientific and policy shifts among member countries of the East African regional bloc.
Critics say that where biotechnology claims to have the solution to a life-threatening problem, the product is often in development for years after press releases proclaim its life-saving properties. This often results in funding cuts for more traditional and safer options such as biological control, which unlike GMOs, address the cause rather than the symptoms of the problem.
Dr Hans Herren won the World Food Prize in 1995 for using biological controls to stop a scale insect infestation that threatened to destroy cassava crops across Africa.
By investing in the co-creation of solutions in which farmers and scientists work together, rooted in local ecological conditions. Cassava is a very resilient crop and when it comes to biological control of mealybug and green mites, natural solutions work and are supported by healthy soils and healthy plants.
The answer isn’t more technology to defeat nature, it’s understanding nature and working with it to restore balance.
“Years of biotech research gives you a genetically engineered plant variety that does one thing. Tackling the cause of the problem is worth treating the symptoms every time”, according to our source preferring anonymity.