Cassava: Subsistence Crop or Trendy Commodity?

Some crops have it easy. They’re planted, they grow, they’re harvested and, finally, they’re eaten. No such luck with cassava. Cassava, as food, at the very least must be cooked in order to remove certain toxins. More interesting, however, is that cassava serves as a basis for the manufacture of many by-products ranging from chips as feed to processed food, starch and alcohol.

When many people hear the word cassava, they immediately think of a subsistence crop. Is this really the case? It depends on who you ask.

In our recent workshop on Cassava Value Chains at CIAT, James Cock, CIAT emeritus scientist, said:


“Cassava is not a subsistence crop anymore. The role of cassava in development is not so much for food production…” James went on to say that production of cassava is actually for income and, “In fact, the role of cassava in the future is very much related with income generation for the rural sector.”

James Cock

CIAT emeritus scientist

Though cassava has so much potential, it exists among many different potential substitute commodities. Cassava and its by-products may serve as substitutes if they are more competitive than other products based on relative price. Knowing these dynamics is key to advance the development of the use of the crop as well as the cassava industry as a whole. As trends in cassava trade may affect everyone from the smallholder cassava farmer to the large industrial cassava grower, information regarding cassava trade and the corresponding value chains becomes very important. This becomes especially true because there is a great deal of regional variation in the structures associated with cassava value chains, agricultural policy, as well as the required environmental and agronomic practices.

In recent years, several countries in Asia have emerged both as key producers and consumers of cassava, specifically cassava chips and starch. In Latin America and Africa, cassava has been a key crop for both subsistence and economic purposes, but in very different ways. Why are these regions so different?

According to James, it’s clear that cassava is a “flex crop” both in terms of its potential uses as well as the role that it serves for its producers. The specific uses of cassava may vary by both level of development as well as the regions in which it is grown. It may initially serve as a subsistence crop, providing at the same time the opportunity to shift to serving as the primary input for the commercialization of multiple off-farm products. In much of Southeast Asia and the southern tropics of Latin America, cassava is already widely produced for industrial uses (see examples here: Brazil talk, CODIPSAAfrica, Asia).

Cassava trade has developed rapidly throughout Asia. According to Simon Bentley’s presentation during the Cassava Value Chains workshop, this growth is due to two key facts: there is a regional advantage associated with intra-Asian trade and there are cost production advantages throughout the region. The development of new high-yielding varieties has also helped promote cassava as a viable form of agriculture.

Simon Bentley stated that while both Africa and South America are major cassava producers, only a small portion of the crop is traded internationally. There is limited inter-regional trade in cassava, and many of the cassava products are consumed locally. Recently, however, the tide appears to be shifting in Africa with some evidence of increasing commercialization and expanding regional trade, with interesting cases in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda, among others.

The rapid growth in cassava production and use in Asia did not happen in isolation, nor did it happen overnight. Due to increasing globalization, the cassava system has become much more complex over time. There are many new actors in the market, and cassava trade is a function of both the production and consumption of cassava-related commodities as well as their substitutes. This expansion has been driven by a countless number of factors ranging from prices and policy to trends such as gluten-free diets that benefit from high-quality cassava starch. A window into this complex and dynamic commodity landscape can be gained by looking at the changing trade in chips and starches.

What do you think?

Take a moment to explore the following interactive graphics depicting changes in trade in cassava chips and cassava starch. What factors could be driving these trends?

Could it be:

  • Consolidation of resellers?
  • Expansion of exporters?
  • More importers?
  • More dried-chip exporters than starch exporters?
  • Increasing number of trade connections (cross linkages)?
  • Asymmetry in production vs. exports due to domestic markets?
  • More flexible commercial policies?
  • Something else altogether?

Please see our interactive graphics and explore the global trends!

1986–1992: 80’s.
Dried Cassava

1986–1992: 80’s.
Cassava Starch

The European countries’ role stands out. They were shaping a sort of intra-regional trade among them, but in parallel they obtain their supplies from Southeast Asia, especially dried cassava trade. Also the Netherlands’ role is remarkable. They obtain their supplies from Asia, but at the same time re-export to different partners in and outside of Europe. Both dried cassava trade and cassava trade have a similar behavior because they have exporter countries concentrated in that period. In the cassava starch trade, there is a notable presence of LAC countries.

2007–2013: Currently
Dried Cassava

2007–2013: Currently
Cassava Starch

More and more actors, the trade has more countries that take part in the global dried cassava and cassava starch market. It can be noted that as ALC and Africa gain trade network share in that period, it lets them spread and position themselves. Another relevant element is to see dwindling the number of importer countries or partners. So, is it possible to say that cassava is trendy? On the other hand, there are more countries that import both chips and starch and they themselves re-export to other target markets assuming a substantial role as intermediaries.

Tweet us your opinions using #TrendyCassava

Be sure to come back and see what your cassava colleagues are saying.

Global Futures and Strategic Foresight (GFSF) project CIAT team members:

Steven D. Prager

Senior Scientist for Integrated Modeling

[email protected]

Harold Achicanoy

Statistician, Research Assistant

[email protected]

Patricia Álvarez Toro

Agronomist, Research Assistant

[email protected]

Benjamin Schiek

Economist, Research Associate

[email protected]

Carlos González

Economist, Research Assistant

[email protected]