The battle to control weeds on cassava farms received support from Nigerian engineers who are joining forces with experts from IITA to seek sustainable solutions to the menace.
The team of engineers, drawn from academia, IITA, and the public and private sectors, is exploring mechanical weeding options used elsewhere in the world with the hope of adapting them to African cropping systems.
The team plans to build on the motorized equipment already available in the market by studying their limitations in the African farming context, understanding those limitations, and modifying the equipment for maximum efficiency.
At a meeting in Ibadan to start the collaboration on 13 August, Dr Alfred Dixon, Project Leader for the Cassava Weed Management Project, described the partnership as a key milestone that would redefine the mechanical control of weeds in crops such as cassava in Nigeria in particular, and Africa in general.
“For us to maximize yield in Africa, we need to mechanize weeding. The challenge before us is to innovate and develop the means to take drudgery away from farmers, and make the farms weed free so that the crops will grow and express their full potential,” Dr Dixon said.
Weeds account for between 50% and 80% of the total labor budget of cassava growers and are major disincentives to African farmers. As traditional agriculture is still predominant, women and children in Nigeria have the main burden of weeding, investing between 200 and 500 hours annually in clearing one hectare of cassava to prevent economic root losses. The drudgery involved in weeding places a yoke on women, compromises productivity and, more importantly, jeopardizes the education of children aged 5-14 years as most are forced out of school to assist their parents.
Dr Dixon said unless solutions to the problem were made available, African farmers would not be able to increase their farm sizes and enjoy the gains of agricultural growth. “They can plant only what they can weed,” he concluded.
Prof Olawale John Olukunle, Head, Department of Agricultural Engineering, Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA), welcomed the proposal to work jointly with the Nigerian experts through the IITA Cassava Weed Management Project, and praised the Institute’s efforts towards addressing the problem of weeds in cassava and other African crops.
The Cassava Weed Management Project was launched early this year and is confronting the problem on several fronts including the use of best-bet agronomic practices by combining improved varieties with proper planting dates, plant populations, plant nutrition options, and also focusing on intercropping and tillage research. The integrated approach of the project also includes the use of herbicides that meet globally accepted conventions and have safety thresholds appropriate for smallholder farmers.
The project intends to widely share knowledge on cassava weed control with farmers so they can make informed and better choices in controlling weeds on their farms using labor-saving options.