NextGen Cassava uses market intelligence tools to understand farmer preference
At the start of the NextGen Cassava initiative, scientists were eager to unlock the genetic potential of cassava. But they were equally committed to exploring the preferences of people growing cassava. They wanted assurances that their advanced breeding tools would be applied to developing cassava varieties that would be rapidly adopted by African farmers. So, they applied the same level of scientific innovation and objective analysis to understanding farmer preferences that they were applying to understanding cassava genomics. NextGen experts have employed a wide variety of tools in their effort to map the preferences of cassava farmers. For example:
- They used a software platform called 1000minds to conduct surveys in which men and women farmers were asked to rate their preferences for variables such as yield, color, food quality and hardiness. To further understand how individuals within households differ in their preferences, husbands and wives were surveyed separately and then together. In doing so, NextGen social scientists were able to capture both gender differences in cassava preferences and elements of the household decisionmaking processes.
- These insights were combined with additional data from a survey known as RHoMIS—the Rural Household Multi-Indicator Survey—which allowed the NextGen team to further segment cassava preferences with information on household food security status and income levels, in addition to the location and gender of the respondent.
Data on household preferences were triangulated with field studies to ensure that what farmers were saying in the surveys matched what they were cultivating in the field. It all came together to give NextGen breeders a highly nuanced view of the types of cassava they should be developing.
Overall a complex picture emerged. Cassava preferences differed between men and women, and notably, by region. Moreover, cassava choices among women farmers diverged depending on their levels of income and food security. For example, food quality traits were more important for households that lacked food security. Gender differences between men and women also were more pronounced in these households. In addition, households headed by women prioritized quality traits more than those headed by couples. This nuanced data demonstrates the importance of approaching African smallholder farmers as a highly diverse and very selective group of cassava growers. And for national cassava breeding programs, this type of intelligence can perform double duty. It offers insights they can use to increase demand for a wide range of cassava varieties, which can help justify a healthy program budget. It also ensures they are serving the needs of marginalized groups like women farmers and farmers supporting impoverished households. This is a potent example of how serving social justice goals can become integral to the overall success of a crop breeding program.
NextGen has come a long way, yet its work is just beginning. The project’s inclusive, holistic approach to combining new advances in cassava breeding with breakthroughs in serving farmer preferences is starting to have an impact. Now is the time to build on this success by broadening and deepening the partnerships established by NextGen. That includes:
- Maintaining progress across a constellation of cassava varieties: Threats like cassava mosaic virus and brown streak disease are rapidly evolving. And while cassava is hardier than most crops, it is not immune to the surge of climate-related challenges occurring across Africa. It’s critical for cassava breeders to keep employing advanced tools to probe large populations of cassava varieties for valuable genetic traits that can help farmers adapt—and understand more about how crop genetics interact with different farming conditions to determine cassava yields, starch quality and other outcomes.
- Sustaining the positive trajectory of genetic gain: NextGen breeders have achieved a commendable rate of genetic improvement. It’s critical for cassava breeders to keep employing advanced tools to sustain this level of progress, thus guaranteeing continuous delivery of future varieties that will ensure farmers working under challenging conditions can meet the food demands of growing populations.
- Improving tools for understanding farmer preferences: Similarly, farmer preferences for particular cassava traits are not static. It’s important to continue to deploy a wide array of market intelligence tools and gender research to ensure breeding work is responsive to the evolving preferences of smallholder farmers, processors and marketers. The needs of women and youth in particular must be considered, as both play a critical—and often overlooked—role in cassava production.
- Expanding partnerships with national programs: Partnerships offer leverage. The partnerships built by NextGen’s community of practice must be nurtured to become sustainable. There is a unique opportunity now to accelerate their capabilities to apply advanced tools and technologies to their cassava breeding work. A growing interest in adopting market intelligence tools—and adding expertise in areas like gender and food science—can improve the relevance of national breeding programs and hence their accountability to the societies they serve.
- Building a new global network of cassava partners: There is a unique opportunity today to build a global brain trust of cassava experts that can elevate the value of cassava for farmers and food systems around the world. NextGen partners already include Brazil and Colombia, and there is considerable interest in collaborations with other cassavaproducing areas, including Thailand, Cambodia and the Pacific Islands.
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