In 2005, Felicien Simpunga cleared his 8 hectares of land and planted cassava in Ruhango district . The yields were always impressive year-in-year-out.
When Kinazi cassava processing plant was established in 2012, it became his main client. Simpunga decided to set up a small factory to process raw dried cassava into flour and sold it at a higher price than raw cassava.
However, in 2014 Simpunga nearly lost everything after an outbreak of Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD), known locally as Kabore.
All eight hectares of his cassava plants were infested and had to be uprooted.
“I had taken a bank loan of Rwf15 million that I haven’t been able to pay back. My four children could no longer go to school. All the workers on my farm lost their jobs and income too”, Simpunga said.
Cassava Brown Streak Disease spread to other cassava-producing districts including; Gisagara, Muhanga, Nyanza, Ruhango, Kamonyi and Bugesera. The loss was so huge.
Rwanda resorted to import a much resistant cassava variety in neighbouring Uganda.
Cassava is served as a staple food for 200 million people across the African continent. However, the crop has periodically suffered mysterious infestations of cassava mealybugs and brown streak virus.
Years later Kenya ordered its scientists to conduct research on a better cassava variety that would resist such attacks- and the answer was a genetically modified variety.
After seven years of intense research on controversial genetically modified cassava, Kenya government has finally approved open cultivation and consumption of this new species.
This latest development is expected to disrupt scientific research within the East African Community which has been resistant to 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 Rwanda’s Musoni Augustin a Pioneer Plant Breeder, embracing GMOs has its own advantages and shortcomings.
“There is little debate on adoption of GMOs in Rwanda. But we usually discuss about this subject inside our laboratories,” Musoni told Taarifa on Friday.
Musoni also says that many african countries have been hesitant to taking up such genetically modified organisms, however, he noted that many of these countries are importing GMOs and consuming them without their knowledge.
“Rwanda imports some 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 engineered cassava may trigger alot of scientific and policy alterations among member countries in the East African regional bloc.
Critiques argue that where biotech claims it has the solution to a life-threatening problem, the product is often in development for years after the press releases proclaim its life-saving properties. This often results in cuts in funding for more traditional and safer options such as biological control, which unlike GMOs, deal with the cause rather than the symptoms of the problem.
Dr. Hans Herren won the World Food Prize in 1995 for using biological controls to halt a mealybug infestation that threatened to destroy cassava crops across Africa.
By investing in co-creation of solutions in which farmers and scientists work together, embedded in the local ecological conditions. Cassava is a very resilient crop and, refering to the mealybug and green-spider-mites biological control, natural solutions do work and are supported by healthy soils and healthy plants.
The answer is not more technology to overcome nature, it is understanding nature and working with it to restore balance.
“Years of biotechnology research give you one genetically modified plant variety that does one thing. Tackling the cause of the problem beats symptom treatment, every time,” according to our source preferring anonymity.