In the hills of Cameroon, an hour's drive from the capital Yaoundé, groups of women are sitting in semi-circles, washing, peeling and slicing cassava tubers, from a large pile that lies in the middle. A few yards away, another group is removing the leaves from the stalks and vigorously pounding them to make a thick paste.
These are some of the 253 women members of the Coopérative SOCOOPMATPA, a dynamic initiative launched in 2004 to add value to cassava and earn higher revenues for local rural communities.
Almost all their work is done by hand, though the cooperative has a machine to make cassava flour. "It's very hard work," says Hélène Mnisili. This energetic grey-haired lady is known to everyone as Mama Douala and is chair of the cooperative, whose members also include 144 men and 53 young people.
The cooperative members are drawn from the surrounding villages. They grow cassava in fields on the slopes around the processing unit, some of them owned individually and others collectively. There is a special field for propagating young cassava plants from cuttings. Even the children from the local school have a plot, where they cultivate cassava and learn how to fertilise the soil ecologically, using the marigold flowers that grow everywhere. This bright yellow flower, which is an invasive species, contains potash, which is highly beneficial to cassava growth.
The cooperative members have recently turned to planting improved varieties, which produce higher yields and have greater resistance to disease. "The use of these improved varieties has greatly increased production," said Mama Douala. "Our vision is to contribute to the development of a modern and sustainable agriculture, one that is entrepreneurial and competitive, and assures food and nutrition security and an improvement in the economic and social well-being of rural communities."
Harvesting is also done by hand, and the tubers are piled into 50-kilo sacks before the work of processing begins. First, the tubers are peeled and softened in water, before being grated. Depending on the final product, the next stage may involve making cassava flour, frying to make garri, drying on bamboo racks to make cassava chips or pounding to a paste and binding it in leaves before cooking over a fire to make bâtons de manioc – literally, cassava sticks, which the women have renamed saucisse de manioc – cassava sausage.
The leaves are used too, either to wrap cassava products, or as a basis for various dishes. The women also use it as a dye. All the products are packaged on site before being sold to retail outlets in Yaoundé.
In another area, cassava flour is being added to water and sugar and fermented in a vat over a slow fire for four days to make an alcoholic drink.
"We drink this at parties, instead of buying whisky," said one of the women. "You don't throw anything away with cassava."
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