With COVID-19, Cassava gets New Use and Goes in High Demand

Cassava Farms for the bioenergy refinery plant
Cassava Farms for the bioenergy refinery plant


Reuters report that to deal with drier conditions brought by a shifting climate, farmer Pamela Nyirenda last year shifted to growing drought-hardy cassava, among other new water-sipping crops such as groundnuts and cowpea.

But this year her cassava field has brought not just a secure harvest but also a financial windfall, as buyers snap up the tubers to produce ethanol for alcohol-based hand sanitiser.

As the coronavirus pandemic hits Africa, cassava flour in Zambia is this year selling for up to 5,000 kwacha ($270) a tonne, a steep rise from less than 2,000 kwacha last year at this time, according to the Zambia National Farmers Union.

Small-scale farmers like Nyirenda, 39, who has a two-hectare family farm near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, say they’re fast reaping the benefits of switching to hardier crops, both in terms of better food security in a time of uncertainty and more income.

“This is my second year cultivating (it) and I have managed 10 tonnes of cassava tubers,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

She said she expects to earn nearly twice as much from her cassava this year as last.

As they struggle with longer and more frequent droughts linked to climate change, a growing number of farmers in Zambia – and across sub-Saharan Africa – are switching to water-saving crops more likely to ensure a harvest, even in poor conditions.

Now that switch away from staples such as maize and rice to millet, cassava, sorghum and other crops is having multiple payoffs, particularly for farmers who depend solely on rain-fed fields for harvest, agricultural experts say.


Musika, a Zambian agricultural non-profit, noted than over 25,000 farmers in Zambia – many of them women – are now growing particularly drought-tolerant varieties of cassava, up from 5,000 five years ago.

Pamela Hamasaka, head of corporate affairs for Musika, said demand for cassava ethanol has surged in Zambia as companies rush to churn out more hand sanitizer to control the spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

Zambia has so far recorded close to 100 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, with three deaths. Public gatherings and non-essential travel have been halted, and in April the president declared use of face masks mandatory in public.

Currently, 250 tonnes of cassava flour a day are being turned into ethanol for hand sanitizer and other products sold locally or exported to neighboring countries in the region, Hamasaka said.

“The advent of COVID-19… has pushed the demand for bi-products of ethanol high,” she said.

But some experts fear turning food crops like cassava into ethanol could hit the region’s food security as a COVID-19 global economic slowdown leads to more export bans.

Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture projects the country will produce just over a million tonnes of cassava flour this year.

The country has seen an average 6% rise in production annually over the last five years, according to ministry figures.

Cassava is now grown by about a half-million small-scale farmers in Zambia, as part of a push to diversify agriculture beyond maize, the country’s drought-vulnerable staple, ministry officials said.

Reporting by Danstan Kaunda ; editing by Laurie Goering : Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit news.trust.org/climate


  1. For years I have been urging people to get into cassava farming. I am glad I did so and my farm is doing great during this time. In fact I have recently employed 30 young men and women. Kz

  2. That is very good news i hope the government can also introduced yam in Zambia i think the climate can support it.

  3. That is very good news i hope the government can also introduce yam in Zambia i think the climate can support it

  4. Corruption scandals: 48 Houses Social Security Cash Luxury Presidential Jet Ambulances Fire Trucks Mukula Trees Ndola-Lusaka Rd Malawi Maizegate Fuelgate Swaziland landgate Zesco Loans

    Great stuff… I remember growing up this cassava staple was despised by my people who wrongly reasoned that it was for immigrants like Mbundas and Luvales from Angola. It was only used in small samples as an add on to the maize flour to add certain texture to the Nshima. Great to see it getting the attention it deserves. Kalabo and Kaoma in Barotseland grow quite a bit of cassava.
    As for the hand sanitizer, that’s awesome innovation and it is great to hear local produced products like this… although that will just mean the PF will pocket all that donated money meant to buy imported hand sanitizers.
    @Nostradamus, fun comment haha but it’s kinda true too, except there’s a slight difference in statistics from the 25,000 farmers at the start by the Musika group to half a million…

  5. Kz… you may get a much different response from readers if your comments had not your name tag attached to it. Quiet sad.

  6. Written by a Zambian. Edited by a muzungu.

    Moral of the story…
    we can’t get things right without the help of muzunguz. Things as simple as ABC

  7. Don’t worry much farmers we have our Bally Coming to fix all your challenges. PF must go!

  8. It’s inspiring to see that farmers are no longer focusing on growing maize alone. Really good initiative and I hope more people with the capacity, can do the same. @ Kaizar, it’s encouraging to hear that you’re empowering the 30 people, that amounts to 30 different families benefiting from your project and lives being changed for the better. Kudos to you, awesome work!!!!

  9. Knowing Zambians, they may all venture into the same thing when they hear such success stories. Embrace Diversity. COVID 19 is a 2020 disease and it will go away.
    Do you know why Tomato price is too low sometimes? Because everyone wants to grow Tomatoes and when you overproduce, Tomatoes become worthless! Why Zambians don’t want to work together will remain a mystery. Why don’t Farmers alternate roles? Farming works best when farmers work as Cooperatives!

  10. “this year her cassava field has brought not just a secure harvest but also a financial windfall, as buyers snap up the tubers to produce ethanol for alcohol-based hand sanitiser.”

    That’s an absolute waste of resources. Food must be the priority, not industrial production.

  11. All to blessed family, hoping you staying safe and protected. Kudos for those with major harvest. May our good God provide some surplus in all we do.

  12. My nyerenda is strategically placed …..near DRC which has an insatiable appetite for everything cassava.

    By now Zambia should have captured this DRC market with the right support.

  13. Cassava among alternative starches is the largest producer of ethanol per unit hectare, so it makes perfect sense. The success story seems to popularize cassava ethanol as a response factor to the trends in covid. So after covid where’s sustainability? Globally Zambia is lowest producer of fresh cassava at 1 million ton per year mostly utilized as staple food to
    35% of the Zambian population. This capacities not sustainable raw material supplies for industrial use, or else there’s a risk of breeding hunger and food insecurities to rural households. GRZ should seriously consider raising cassava productivity to 30 million ton per year in 10 years along with predictive industrial benefits.

  14. @Spaka. In the SADC region, DRC is the largest producer of cassava at approximately 15 million ton per year. I think DRC is complicated with its problems.

    I thought Lutuku – the local gin popular among the Luvale distillers should be carrying success stories. They used waste material supplies for distillation. This is serious IP. I love the Luvales.

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