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Questions are beginning to emerge about the future of the Cassava bread initiative, launched over two years ago by President Goodluck Jonathan as a flagship cassava programme.
These are sequel to emerging indications that the initiative, instituted to add value to cassava value-chain by creating demands for its consumables may have achieved far less outcome than expected.
Daily Independent findings show that Nigerians are still far from convinced about the product, just as consumers complain that the product is hardly available at major outlets.
This may not be unconnected with the fact that only three big bread makers, representing less than one per cent of the entire bread industry, have so far adopted the initiative with complaints from the smaller bakers that the policy is causing job loss.
Meanwhile, the product is still far from finished. Although the proponents of the cassava bread insist it has the same shelf life as the wheat counterpart, findings show that some of the brands on sale crumble faster than the seven to eight-day guarantee brandished by makers.
This reporter purchased one manufactured by one of the corporate bakers, and discovered that it crumbled to pieces in less than five days
There are also complaints that the project is under threat from a set of ‘cabals’ within and outside the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, custodian of the initiative, just as the private sector stakeholders say they are hardly carried along in most of the government initiatives relating to the cassava bread.
Part of the complaints by these stakeholders who spoke to Daily Independent include the seeming difficult in accessing the Minister by his office staff on various occasions that they have tried reaching him.
There is also the issue of the Cassava Bread Development Fund, which Adesina said would be launched last week to help master bakers and other investors in the cassava bread access resources and other incentives to help them adapt to baking with High Quality Cassava Flour (HQCF).
The Minister told newsmen at the launch of cassava bread by retail outlet- Park & Shop Spar in Lagos that the fund would be launched within the week starting on March 18, 2013. He also said initiatives to market the cassava bread are tied to the fund.
This did not however happen as the minister told a meeting of cassava bread stakeholders in Abuja that week, that the fund would begin accepting proposals from potential beneficiaries at the end of this month.
There is also the issue of training for Master Bakers, who have complained of lack of technical capacity to go into cassava bread making, just as there are insinuations that they (the Master Bakers) are billed exorbitantly for such trainings. One of such covert complaints is that one of such trainings conducted this month did very little to lift their capacity in the novel field.
When confronted on these issues, especially the skepticism by some of his members about keying into the initiative, President of the Master Bakers Association of Nigeria, Mr. Simeon Abalonu, said it may not be absolutely true.
But on the survival of the initiative, Abalonu believes that “if the Federal Government really means to achieve results with the cassava bread initiative, it will.”
Abalonu however, said there are hurdles to cross, the first of which is that of enzymes.
He noted that enzymes, which is not available in locally, “is the key to the success of this initiative. It is available in countries like China, South Africa. Enzyme replaces the gluten. If we can find a way of making them available in the country, this project will be a success,” he said.
Meanwhile, he is concerned about the administration of the Cassava Bread Development Fund.
“The question is: Who is holding that fund. We do not know, and we cannot know for now. When will it be ready? Who is it meant for? We understand it is the Master Bakers. All we are asking them to do is open the fund so we can also launch our own cassava breads,” the Master Bakers’ president told journalists at the cassava bread launch in Lagos.
On whether the cassava bread making business is for all, Abalonu responded that “only the corporate bakers are the ones making it for now. Any master baker that is doing it now is only doing it in small quantity, and not for commerce.”
Meanwhile, he said the level of production from the corporate bakers cannot match the demands of Nigerians, because “they (corporate bakers) make up only 0.5 per cent of the entire bakers in the country, and master bakers constitute 99.5 per cent. With this, the corporate bakers cannot even match the demand for Lagos alone,” Abalonu said.
Consequently, he believes that “unless master bakers key into this initiative, it might not succeed.”
Contributing on the development fund, National Public Relations Officer of the Master Bakers Association, Mr Jude Okafor, also lamented that “the levy imposed on wheat importation was done with the understanding that the Federal Government will help the bakers in the provision of machineries.”
He is, however, worried that the cassava inclusion policy is having negative effects on the master bakers.
“Before the policy, a bag of Wheat sold for a little below N6000, but now it sells for N7000 or more. And, because we have not started using the cassava flour, most of the bakeries are closing shop. That is why we are appealing to the FG to make the Cassava Bread Development Fund operational so we can key into it as originally agreed,” Okafor said.
The association, comprising about 450,000 members across the country, is worried that the quantity of HQCF to be produced might not go round.
Cabal as a threat
Executive officer with the Association of Cassava Processors in Nigeria, Mr. Femi Salami, when asked about the issue of cabal as a threat to the cassava bread initiative lamented that “there is a strong cabal even in the Ministry of which the Minister is aware. The cassava bread initiative can achieve but the minister must stand up to this (cabal).”
This cabal, Salami explained, for example, was behind the failure of the initiative under the former President Olusegun Obasanjo, even after putting “the necessary machineries in place. But it was hijacked and the initiative was unable to see the light of day.”
Reacting to the minister’s announcement that machines for processing HQCF are to be imported, Salami said in an interview: “We have not been consulted, right from conception. As stakeholders, we have made entreaties to the government …I just hope they are not hijacked…we are not carried along.”
Like Abalonu, he said the enzyme, which removes the gluten from cassava flour remains the determinant of the policy’s success or otherwise.
There was however no response, when Daily Independent made attempts to get Dr. Adesina to react to the above issues and questions ask by stakeholders through his email. There was equally no response when a reminder was sent last week, eight days after the initial one.
However, speaking at the venue of the cassava bread launch in Lekki, Lagos, the Minister said Nigerians “should be proud of our own efforts to create jobs all around the cassava growing areas of Nigeria.”
On the slow acceptance of the cassava bread, Adesina said, “things take time for people to get used to. Park & Shop Spar will not be making the bread if people are not buying.”
On the Cassava Bread Development Fund, he assured that the master bakers will be highly supported.
“One, we want to support training. As of March, we have trained 345 of them (master bakers),” the minister disclosed.
He also said the fund will support Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) that are producing HQCF, 153 of who have been earmarked.
“We will be supporting marketing and schools feeding programmes. We are also going to support the import of enzymes,” the minister said while answering question on how to deal with concerns over acceptance and enzymes.
Did the bakers lie?
On how to access the funds rhe Minister said: “We have discussed with the master bakers. They know exactly about it. It was developed together with them. From the end of this month they will put their proposals and we will work out how they can access it.”