Cassava was domesticated in Brazil about 10,000 years ago and was introduced on the Kenyan Coast by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
Its spread into Kenya’s interior was quite slow as it reached Maragoli in Vihiga County and Luo Nyanza in the early 1930s. Today, it is grown in small quantities in the country’s other marginal lands, mostly for subsistence.
Unlike many other crops, cassava was introduced as a means of combating famine. “Root crops”, stated H. Wolfe, the deputy director (plant industry) in 1936, “are considered to be one of the best forms of insuring against famine because they are drought-resistant and provide a steady supply of food from the underground tubers at times when other crops are drought-stricken or destroyed by locusts”. Cassava, apart from Irish and sweet potatoes and yams, was destined to serve this purpose.
In the 1930s, the department of agriculture carried out many trials to determine which cassava varieties could be grown in African reserves.
This was done in agricultural research stations in Kibarani and Amani in the Coast region, and at Maseno and Amakura in Nyanza. Researchers keenly observed and selected varieties that were resistant to diseases such as mosaic.
Other criteria for selecting appropriate varieties were the time they took to produce mature tubers, the quantity of the yield and its palatability. In the last case, for instance, the sweet varieties with the least cyanide were preferred to the bitter ones.
Out of the many varieties that were developed and multiplied on trial farms, Malindi, Aipin Mangi from Java and another variety from Seychelles were considered the best.
Others like Karakote, Bwana Humphrey (possibly named after Norman Humphrey, an administrative official), and Binti Athmani gave reasonable yields but were abandoned because they were easily and heavily infected by mosaic. Cuttings of the best breeds were then distributed for vegetative planting.
Trials with so many varieties demonstrated the perseverance of the colonial plant breeders. In contrast, the means by which cassava was introduced were quite authoritarian, paternalistic and inconsiderate of African opinion and dietary preferences.
For instance, as soon as locusts invaded western Kenya in the late 1920s and the early 1930s, district agricultural and administrative officers exhorted people to grow cassava and sweet potatoes.
This in itself was a good idea. What was inappropriate was the belief by the European officials and Christian missionaries that the use of force was necessary to make Africans grow the crops.
Fr G. Brandsma of the Prefectorate Apostolic of Kavirondo, the present-day Kisumu Diocese, was among those who used force. He wrote to Sir Joseph Aloysius Byrne, Kenya’s governor at the time, that unless severe pressure was used, Africans would not plant the crops.
He also argued that mere advice and talking was not enough; that like children, Africans did not realise the urgency of the matter, namely that the locust invasions presaged famine. The locust invasion in Kenya possibly reminded him about the plague in biblical Egypt.
Governor Byrne, also a Catholic, largely agreed with Brandsma. He immediately instructed provincial commissioners to take immediate steps once their District Commissioners confirmed that due to the locust invasion, the food situation was indeed very bad.
In the end, the PCs requested and secured Governor Byrne’s sanction for the use of compulsion under the Native (Increased Production) Ordinance wherever compulsion was deemed necessary.
This is the way colonial authorities encouraged the growing of root crops during the rest of the 1930s. These were particularly used with renewed vigour during the 1943 territory-wide famine and intermittently during the years that followed through independence.
When the 1943 famine broke out, the colonial government gave orders that cassava growing areas in Nyanza should donate cassava for export to other famine-stricken areas in the province, like Vihiga and the rest of the country such as Sotik, Chepalungu, Kiambu, Kitui, Embu and Kirinyaga.
In the mind of K.L Hunter, the Nyanza provincial commissioner, the immediate problem was who would collect and store the cassava before its distribution to the famine-stricken areas.
He requested cotton ginners at Sio, Nambare, Malakisi, Kendu Bay, Homa Bay, Kibos and Ndere to use their stores and scales to weigh the cassava and cereal crops.
The maize produce controller was empowered to purchase and distribute such cassava to other licensed traders who would then take it to the needy areas.
Since cassava prices were far below those of crops such as maize and millet, many people withheld their crop.
Shortages of other cereals even led to the sale and distribution of raw cassava to places like Vihiga, where the famine had already killed close to 50 people.
Raw and dried cassava was exported to other famine-stricken areas, whose inhabitants had neither seen nor handled the crop. Predictably, cassava sale and free collections were so low that maize and millet were quickly requisitioned for the areas.
Unfamiliarity with cassava caused people in Embu and Kirinyaga to refer to the 1943 crisis as famine of cassava (Yura ria Mianga and Ng’aragu ya Mianga, respectively.
Such reference signifies the fact that colonial food policy never carefully considered what Africans ate and how new foods should be integrated into their diets.
In spite of this failure, the growing of cassava and other root crops was grafted into anti-soil erosion schemes in subsequent years up to 1963.
Both were carried out under more ferocious force than before and fed into the many other grievances that led to the outbreak of the Mau Mau uprising in 1952.
Cassava’s colonial history leads to two main suggestions. First, the government should continue to take keen interest in cassava as a bulwark against drought, locust invasions and the seemingly persistent food shortages.
Second, the government should, in collaboration with research institutions including universities, persistently carry out trials to produce higher-yielding and resistant and safe cassava varieties.
Finally, it should encourage smallholder cassava growers to form cooperatives to help secure the best cassava varieties for planting, sell, purchase other required inputs, and add value to the crop by processing its many products such as flour, chips, leaves for vegetable, laundry starch, alcohol and biofuel.