Enabling rural women prosper from cassava bioethanol production through university-community engagement

By Settumba Mukasa and Deogracious Opolot, College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Makerere University

For decades, women in Apac District in Northern Uganda have produced bioethanol as a means of livelihood. In fact, some women in Chegere, Apac District confess to depending entirely on bioethanol as the source of income. Proceeds from the sale of bioethanol are used to provide basic household needs such as food, medication, soap and sugar, and also to pay for education of their children, some up to university level.

Cassava production in Apac District revolves around five main varieties including both indigenous varieties like Bao and improved varieties. Results from a study by the Cassava Community Action Research Project (Cassava CARP), funded by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) noted that farmers preferred their own local varieties, especially cultivar Bao, for food while recently released varieties are preferred for processing bioethanol that is sometimes constituted into a local potent drink locally known as waragi or lira-lira. Farmers believe that certain cassava varieties yield more bioethanol than others, and varieties less preferred to be eaten as fresh tubers are the ones used for brewing.

Demand for bioethanol has increased in recent times mainly due to the increased diversity of its uses. Research laboratories use it for preservation of biological specimens, cleaning and as a reagent for laboratory analysis; hospitals as a cleaning agent; schools for sanitary purposes; and brewing companies for making gins and beers. It is also used for making cosmetics, solvents, preparation of essences, and as flavorings in pharmaceutical products. The women of Apac could benefit from this increase in demand.

In recent years, the outbreak of the cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease devastated the production of cassava, the main raw material for bioethanol production. This outbreak almost plunged the rural population into extreme poverty, but was averted through interventions by the National Agricultural Research Organisation Uganda, the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industries and Fisheries, and other institutions that provided new and high yielding varieties as well as launching programmes for providing planting materials.

The increased production of cassava, however, paused a new challenge of wastage due to rot especially during the rainy season and periods of peak production. Bioethanol production was one of the pathways to absorb this “excess” cassava, but needed to be optimised. Through engagement with women in Apac District, members of the Cassava Community Action Research Project (Cassava CARP) realized the immense potential of this product in elevating the standards of living of these communities. Bioethanol production was thus identified as one of interventions on which the team would focus.

The Cassava CARP team identified a number of challenges affecting the production and profitability of bioethanol. Firstly, the women got little returns for their labour as most consumers of bioethanol are members of the local community who pay low prices. Sometimes their clients even drink on credit and fail to pay. Poor road and transport networks meant that the market for bioethanol remained limited. Secondly, the quality of bioethanol was low. Preliminary proximate analysis of bioethanol sampled from parts of Apac and Kole districts indicated high levels of methanol and other impurities making the product unhealthy for direct human consumption. Thirdly, the process of making cassava bioethanol was found to be long and tedious thus greatly affecting the quantity that could be produced. This was further exacerbated by the use of rudimentary production methods and processing equipment that were characterized by low efficiency. Fourthly, to enhance hydrolysis and fermentation (key reactions in brewing) farmers use a lot of firewood to roast the cassava mash. This put pressure on the environment by way of cutting more trees.

Traditional cassava bioethanol production in Apac: A) Labour and firewood consuming roasting of pre-soaked cassava flour B) Time consuming distillation ofthe fermented broth yielding 0.5 liters of bioethanol per hour

Traditional cassava bioethanol production in Apac: A) Labour and firewood consuming roasting of pre-soaked cassava flour B) Time consuming distillation ofthe fermented broth yielding 0.5 liters of bioethanol per hour

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Apply Now: Terms of Reference to undertake a Scoping Study on Technical and Vocational Education and training (TVET) in selected African countries

Deadline Extension: 16 February, 2017 


The overall outlook for Africa’s development has improved, largely due to recent growth as recorded in GDP growth (average over 4% per annum across the continent) over the last decade. A recent report by Mckinsey and Company[1] (2014) highlighted that Africa’s collective GDP in 2008 was 1.6 trillion, roughly equal to Brazil or Russia’s. The report provides further evidence of Africa’s growing business environment, with at least 20 African companies with revenues of at least US$ three billion and a fast growing ICT sector, with 316 million new mobile subscribers[2]. The British Council reported ‘five of the world’s top ten countries in GDP growth are in the region, with foreign direct investment up, inflation slowed and remittances at record levels[3]’. As such, Africa is currently facing a number of emerging challenges that might also be seen as opportunities, including a rising middle class, rapid urbanization, strong ICT growth and a high proportion of youth.

Despite this growth, agricultural production and productivity remains low and focuses on subsistence. Agriculture is implemented primarily by smallholder rural farmers, who continue to face traditional challenges of rain-fed agriculture, poor postharvest management, low value addition and low productivity.  Efforts to strengthen on and off farm agricultural production and value addition requires a cadre of skilled workers and facilitators to support access to available knowledge for enhancing production and marketing. While universities have been a strong focus of many programs that support the building of skills to support the provision of agricultural advisory services in Africa, less focus has been provided to Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET)[4] institutions along the educational value chain, which have the capacity to scale knowledge generation, access and use. The university sector in Africa has grown from just under 70,000 students in the late 1970’s to over six million in 2012. Universities are mushrooming all over the continent, yet demand continues to grow. However, growth has been at the expense of TVET institutions in Africa. This is because many new universities have been created by the transformation of TVET institutions, by making use of their existing infrastructure. Equally, budget allocation to the university sector has continued to grow, in most countries it has decreased for TVET institutions. Nonetheless, TVET institutions have an important role to play in putting in place the necessary skills, at scale, to support farmers and other stakeholders in driving production and development.

Introduction to the assignment

The Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), Gulu University and Egerton University in partnership with The MasterCard Foundation (MCF) are implementing a project “Transforming African agricultural universities to meaningfully contribute to Africa’s growth and development (TAGDev)”. The TAGDev project seeks to strengthen the capacity of universities and facilitate the training of dynamic and proactive graduate leaders and entrepreneurs that can better respond to developmental challenges through enhanced application of science, technology, business and innovation for rural agricultural transformation. The project will contribute significantly to efforts aimed at escalating skilled human resources and capacity to meet the AU Agenda 2063 as well as other frameworks on the continent. RUFORUM, through the TAGDev Program, will undertake four broad activities:

  • Piloting a new model of agricultural education at early adopter universities that connects tertiary agricultural education to rural communities, with an emphasis on smallholder farmers;
  • Strengthening agribusiness/entrepreneurship at two universities and selected TVET institutions;
  • Scaling the new model for agricultural education to other agricultural universities and TVET institutions; and,
  • Increasing collaboration and mutual learning among institutions and agencies implementing and influencing innovative Tertiary Agricultural Education for rural transformation in Africa.

Through this project, the delivery of transformative services to ensure production of entrepreneurial graduates with leadership skills and potential to create impact in the rural communities will be supported. One of the sub-components of this project relates to integration of TVET into the Community Action Research Program (CARP) as a mechanism to enhance educational value chain and linkages between universities and TVET institutions as well as increase the impact and contribution of higher education institutions to rural development and transformation. As can be seen, Objective 2, 3 and 4 require that the Project clarify how the engagement between the universities who are the key implementers, with RUFORUM coordination, will work to engage with TVET institutions initially in Kenya and Uganda, but later across the continent. Thus, RUFORUM is commissioning a scoping study to provide an underpinning for the work to be undertaken and provide a clear and coherent mechanism for university engagement in TVET and with TVET institutions.

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