By Yassir Islam
Yassir Islam is the Head of Communications at HarvestPlus, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that is working to address global micronutrient deficiency, by adding nutrients to staple crops and making those crops more accessible.
Cassava is possibly the most adaptable of all tropical food crops. It tolerates drought, does not need much land preparation or weeding, and thrives in poor soils without chemical inputs. The leaves are nourishing, and the thick fleshy roots are used to make many different types of foods from cassava flour to tapioca pearls.
A girl enjoying yellow cassava. (Photo credit: International Center for Tropical Agriculture)
So what’s not to like?
Well, no matter how cassava is prepared, one fact remains: it is a good source of calories but provides few other nutrients. Could this food that is so popular in the tropics, and a lifesaver in times of drought, be made more nutritious? Scientists began investigating this question in 2003, focusing on a critical nutrient: vitamin A.
Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is common in sub-Saharan Africa. In Nigeria, VAD afflicts almost 20 percent of pregnant women and about 30 percent of children under five. VAD lowers immunity which can increase the chances of getting ill or infected with disease. It can also lead to impaired vision, blindness, and even death. While Nigeria has mandated that foods such as wheat and maize flours be fortified with vitamin A since 2000, and provides vitamin A supplements to young children during national immunization day, coverage is low and vitamin A deficiency has decreased only marginally.