Helping Cassava Farmers by Extending Crop Life | MIT News

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Cassava, a root vegetable, is a major staple food in dozens of countries around the world. Drought-resistant, nutritious and tasty, it has also become a major source of income for small rural farmers in places like West Africa and Southeast Asia.

But cassava’s usefulness has always been limited by its short post-harvest shelf life of two to three days. This puts millions of harvest-dependent farmers in a difficult position. Farmers cannot plant more than they can sell quickly in local markets, and they are often forced to sell below market prices because buyers know the harvest will spoil quickly. As a result, cassava farmers are among the poorest people in the world.

Now startup CassVita buys cassava directly from farmers and applies patent-pending biotechnology to extend its shelf life to 18 months. The approach has the potential to transform economies in rural and poor areas where millions of families depend on cultivation for their income.

CassVita tells farmers how much cassava the company will buy each month and processes the cassava in a manufacturing facility in Cameroon. She is currently selling the first version of her product as a powdered food to Cameroonians and West African immigrants in the United States.

But CassVita founder and CEO Pelkins Ajanoh ’18 says the company’s future will revolve around its next product: a cassava-based flour that can directly replace wheat. The wheat substitute would greatly expand CassVita’s target market to include the fast-growing, trillion-dollar healthy food market.

Ajanoh says CassVita is currently able to increase farmers’ incomes by around 400% through its purchases.

“Our goal is to leverage proprietary technology to provide a healthier, tastier alternative to wheat while creating prosperity for local farmers,” says Ajanoh. “We hope to tap into this huge market while empowering farmers, while minimizing spoilage and incentivizing farmers to plant more.”

Gain confidence to help a community

While growing up in Cameroon, Ajanoh’s parents always stressed the importance of education for him and his three siblings. But Ajanoh lost his father when he was 13, and his mother moved to the United States a year later to help support the family. Meanwhile, Ajanoh was living with her grandmother, a cassava farmer. For many years, Ajanoh watched his grandmother harvest the cassava without realizing any lasting financial gains. He remembers feeling helpless as his grandmother struggled to pay for things like diabetes medication.

Then, Ajanoh obtained the best marks in the national exams that Cameroonian students take before university. After high school, he joined his mother in the United States and came to MIT to study mechanical engineering. Once on campus, Ajanoh says he was having lunch with new people all the time to learn from them.

“I had never had this community of intellectuals – and they came from all over the world – so I soaked in as much as I could,” says Ajanoh. “It sparked an interest in entrepreneurship because MIT is a super entrepreneur. Everyone thinks of starting something cool.

Ajanoh also gained confidence during an internship the summer after his freshman year, when he created self-driving technology for General Motors that was eventually patented.

“It made me realize that I could do something really valuable for the world, and at the end of this internship I was like, ‘Now I want to solve a problem in my community,'” he says.

Returning to the crop he knew well, Ajanoh received a series of grants from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund to experiment with ways to extend the shelf life of cassava. In the summer of 2018, the MIT-Africa program sponsored three MIT students to fly with it to Cameroon to participate in internships with the company.

Today, CassVita partners with development banks to help farmers get loans to buy the cassava sticks used for planting. Ajanoh says CassVita opted for a powdered food for its first product because it requires less marketing to sell to West Africans, who are familiar with the dish. Now the company is working on a cassava flour that it will market to all consumers looking for healthy alternatives to wheat that can be used in pastries and other baked goods.

“Cassava makes sense as a global wheat substitute because it’s gluten-free, grain-free, nut-free, and it also helps with glucose regulation, normalizes blood sugar, lowers triglycerides, so the benefits for health are exciting,” Ajanoh said. “But farmers were still living in poverty, so if we could solve the shelf life problem, we could empower those farmers to bring healthier wheat alternatives to the global market.”

The project has taken on added urgency now that the war in Ukraine is limiting that country’s wheat and grain exports, raising prices and increasing food insecurity in regions around the world.

Showing the value of helping farmers

Ajanoh says the majority of people who grow cassava are women, and he says challenges with the shelf life of cassava have contributed to gender inequalities in many communities. In fact, of the approximately 500 farmers CassVita works with in Cameroon, 95% are women.

“It’s always excited me because I was raised by women, so working on something that could empower women in their communities and give them authority is rewarding,” says Ajanoh.

Ajanoh has already heard from farmers who have been able to send their children to school for the first time thanks to their improved financial situation. Now, as CassVita continues to grow, Ajanoh wants to stay focused on the technology that enables these new business models.

“We are evolving into a food technology company,” says Ajanoh. “We prefer to focus on using technology to impact lives and improve outcomes in these communities. Right now we’re going all the way to consumers because it’s an opportunity that the Nestles and the Unilevers of the world won’t take because the market doesn’t yet make sense to them. So we have to build that business and show them the value.

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