Magdalene Mutolo uses a blunt machete to break the ground at the base of the only surviving green plant in her farm in Tala, Kang’undo.
She pulls out a long brown tuber with white patches.
“I will peel off the tuber and cut it into pieces, boil it and serve it with vegetables and pawpaw as a complete meal for my family,” she says.
Her words underscore the severity of food shortage that has hit many families due to the ongoing dry spell.
Her husband Peter Mutolo, 64, has the benefit of experience having relied on cassava to survive famines in 1969, 1972 and several times since 1990s and cannot agree more.
Although he grows maize and beans, last year he had nothing to harvest and he has had to rely on cassava to feed his family.
Their 30 acres farm is listed by the Ministry of Agriculture at Tala as one of the few in the region left with cassava.
Magdalene grows the hard-to-peel Kiseleseli and the soft and high-yielding Kikamba varieties. After harvesting, the stems are cut into pieces and intercropped with maize.
Cassava just needs rains to come about twice in a space of few weeks for the plant to take root and, thereafter, sprout and grow healthily to the full height of 10ft even if rains fail to continue.
With other inputs like manure and fertiliser, a harvest is guaranteed after about five months, each plant yielding 40 tubers enough to fill a bag which goes for Sh1,500 at the local market but can fetch up to Sh4,000 in Nairobi and Mombasa.
Cassava can be eaten in the morning with tea, Mutolo tells Seeds of Gold, noting that high frequency of food shortages in Ukambani mean children whose families do not grow cassava and cannot afford bread go to school on empty stomachs.
With climate change characterised by prolonged dry spells, cassava which survives better than maize, beans, potatoes, and other common crops happens to get less and less attention.
“It was negatively perceived as a crop for the poor,” says agricultural officer Miriam Mugue who has been promoting cassava growing at Coast, Western and Eastern.
Today she is in-charge of Wendani ward in Kiambu where she has less than 10 cassava growers down from 100 farmers in 2000.
Cassava is one of the ‘orphan crops’ listed as most important in fighting hunger by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Scientists in Kenya and Uganda recognise the potential of cassava in fighting hunger and poverty.
Its main threats have been cassava brown streak and cassava mosaic diseases, which have a history of wiping out cassava crops, says Dr Douglas Miano, a plant pathologist at the University of Nairobi who has been leading a team of scientists to develop a new drought-tolerant and pest-resistant varieties like Virca (Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa).
Researchers at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) where Miano is also working, say in addition to being high-yielding, the new varieties have added protection against the two diseases.
He says the new variety has potential to increase incomes of 63 per cent of households in Eastern and Western Kenya as well as Central and Eastern Uganda.
At the community level, the challenge has been cyanide poisoning which scares consumers, while at policy level, misconception about GMO foods has weakened support for research according to Dr Margaret Karembu of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.