Why cassava could be a way to reduce food costs

Close up of hand peeled cassava with knife Uganda Africa.

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghanaian Elizabeth Ohene takes into account Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni’s call for people to eat inconspicuously amid soaring global wheat prices of cassava.

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There are two main root vegetables in West Africa – cassava and yams.

Cassava is available all year round, is cheap and is known, or correctly, known as the food of the poor.

Another popular one is the yam, which Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe called the “king of crops”.

People eagerly await the harvest of yam. Indeed, there are special ceremonies that take place before eating the new yam and we wear our best clothes to celebrate this vegetable.

Cassava is an everyday food at best, once a regular food for the poor and servants.

I have noticed that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is urging his people to turn to cassava as an antidote to soaring wheat prices during the current global cost of living crisis.

“Eat Muwowo without bread [cassava],” He says.

Worker Snacks: Tea and Tapioca

Cassava can be eaten as a snack

Mr Museveni’s remarks have sparked controversy, with critics saying he has no real plan to deal with the cost of living crisis.

In Ghana, we had a finance minister who was trying to justify proposals to increase taxes back in the 1960s, saying that the poor would not be affected because they were eating gari – a kind of processed cassava Popular granular flour.

At the time, gari was mainly known as food for the poor, and the minister pointed out that if you add water to half a cup of gari, it would swell enough to feed three people. It’s cheap and filling.

Nor did the minister say it out loud that the poor do not eat bread or rice, or other such high-end imported foods. This was largely true at the time.

Years later, we had a minister of state addressing the issue of rising food prices saying that people can always eat kokonte, which he sees as a cheap alternative to rice and other imported foods.

Kokonte is made from tapioca, and like all tapioca, it is known as a food for the poor.

President Museveni stressed that he eats cassava. In other words, no one should be ashamed of eating cassava, or be seen as eating cassava because it’s now the president’s food.

Today, drought-resistant crops are also touted for their health benefits— Cassava root is gluten-free and rich in vitamin C and copper.

Processing cassava into flour on the outskirts of Lomé, Togo

Tapioca flour is gluten-free and can be used in baking

I don’t know if cassava is still considered a food for the poor in Uganda, but in Ghana we have come a long way.

Take Gary. It shed its image as a servant and food for the poor when it became an indispensable companion for all boarding school students.

They go to school with a bag of Gary in a “chopping board.” The various meals they cook with gari in the dorms are called dips.

It’s a quick and easy process that doesn’t require cooking or microwaving – you put some gari in a cup, add water, sugar and milk, mix and that’s it. You have the most delicious and filling snack.

Salty alternatives are more popular and include taking a cup of dry gari, sprinkling a little water to soften it, adding a tablespoon of our famous chili sauce, shito, adding a can of sardines, and mixing it up – then hey presto, you’ve got another great meal. I don’t know why, but this one seems best eaten in a group.

But gari truly became the ultimate haute cuisine – mixed with gravy and seafood – when Ghana’s legendary caterer Barbara Baeta devised a recipe for “gari foto”, which she hosted in 1970 by Prime Minister Kofi Abrefa Busia This recipe was served at the state dinner.

All of a sudden, Gary was the food served at noble parties, and it was fashionable.

“‘I hope that when the madness in Ukraine is over, cassava will be the food of choice across Africa’, Source: Elizabeth Ohner, Source Description: Journalist, Photo: Elizabeth Ohner

In some ways, various foods made from cassava have become touted foods.

This is no different from the advent of so-called soul food for African Americans in the 1960s, when they took what they ate as slaves and turned it into a trendy and desirable food.

I think there is an opportunity for some adventurous Ghanaian caterers to go to Uganda to set up restaurant chains that only serve tapioca-derived foods.

I hope that by the end of the madness in Ukraine, cassava will be the food of choice throughout Africa and we will leave wheat to the people who grow it.

There may not be a Chinua Achebe lyrical around cassava, we may not celebrate the cassava festival, but no one will call it food for the poor again, and President Museveni does not have to give a speech to encourage his people to eat cassava.

More letters from Africa:

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