Strengthening value-chain linkages to improve cassava production in Southeast Asia

1 April, 2015 by (comments)

By Jonathan Newby

Cassava-is-used-for-a-wide-variety-of-products.-In-Java-Indonesia-the-production-of-Tape involves peeling and fermenting the root.

Cassava is used for a wide variety of products. In Java, Indonesia, the production of Tape involves peeling and fermenting the root.

Throughout Southeast Asia, cassava has historically been considered a secondary food crop for remote upland communities. Often grown by ethnic minorities and on marginal land, the crop provided an important source of food and income, particularly in years where other crops failed due to factors such as drought.

Upland farmers harvest roots as required for household consumption and also feed the roots and leaves to their livestock. Spurred by growing global demand for animal feed, starch and biofuel, for several decades cassava has grown in importance as a feedstock with a range of industrial applications.

Native and modified cassava starches are used to produce goods such as paper and cardboard, bioplastics, toothpaste, pharmaceuticals, sweeteners and snack foods. The global demand for cassava continues to grow as incomes change consumption patterns.

The once-refuge crop of the uplands is now a preferred starch source in a wide variety of frozen and pre-packaged foods, low-fat dairy products, and gluten-free snacks that have become commonly consumed in today’s busy urban world.

Cassava commercialization has spread from Thailand and Indonesia to Vietnam in the 1990s and more recently to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar. In 2013, global trade in cassava – mainly dried chips – and cassava starch was estimated at over US$3.6 billion, making a significant contribution to regional economies and smallholder incomes.


In Vietnam and Indonesia, where starch production is a major activity, factories compete for feedstock, providing new business model incentives.

Yet far from the health food section of your local supermarket, millions of cassava farmer’s livelihoods are under threat from a range of pressures. Declining soil fertility, emerging pests and diseases, rising labour cost, and volatile global markets all present challenges for smallholder farmers, and the traders and processors that depend on the feedstock.

In late 2013, funded by ACIAR, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) conducted a small research activity (SRA) to identify opportunities for the private sector to improve the profitability and sustainability of smallholder cassava production, with a focus on Vietnam and Indonesia.

Researchers from CIAT partnered with local research institutions to discuss with farmers, traders, and processors in a wide variety of cassava value chains, the opportunities and constraints to improving the profitability and sustainability of the sector, and the incentive for these actors to be agents of change.

Not a one-size-fits-all solution

Grown in a range of agro-ecological zones in different production systems, ranging from monocultures through to intercropping and agroforestry systems, the role of cassava in smallholder livelihoods varies considerably throughout the region.

At the same time, smallholders sell their product into a range of complex value chains, with different value-chain actors, institutions and policies that influence the way the value-chain functions. As such, the incentive for the private sector to disseminate technologies based on the technology characteristics, local production and market context.


Labour-intensive starch extraction employs over 2000 workers in the Ayeyarwaddy region of Myanmar, though is becoming economically marginal with rising wages.

While the private sector is seen as a key stakeholder in delivering improved technologies to farmers, it is important to understand the capacity and incentives of both public and private sector actors. In some cases, farmers are not well connected to value-chain actors who have an incentive to invest in productivity improvements at the farm level.

This especially applies to poor farmers in biophysically, economically, and politically marginal areas growing cassava as a subsistence crop. However in other markets, the private sector provides an important link between researcher and farmers.

For example, in North Sumatra, traders in the cassava starch value-chain have frequent contact with farmers, operating in areas where cassava is not a priority crop of the local extension systems. Through working with starch factories to increase the knowledge and capacity of their network of traders, it is possible to get information to a large number of famers.

Given the regional nature of the cassava value chain and the opportunities to share experiences, CIAT is developing a research program together with the University of Queensland (UQ), with continual support from ACIAR, to evaluate the opportunities to improve the development and sustainability of the cassava industry and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers by strengthening value chain linkages. The project will develop research partnership across Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar.

Photo credits: Jonathan Newby

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Filed Under: Inside Asia, Inside CIAT