Date of release: Thursday, March 30, 2017

NRIAn innovative idea to extend the shelf life of cassava, the staple food of some of the world's poorest communities, is to be funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

The foundation has announced an initial grant of up to $500,000 to a team led by the University of Greenwich's Natural Resources Institute (NRI). The funding will support the testing and marketing of a storage bag for cassava roots – an innovation that includes built-in curing technology to keep the foodstuff fresh.

The success of the invention, named the NRICassavabag, could benefit 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who rely on cassava for food security and nutrition. Currently, up to 40 per cent of the crop is wasted as it can deteriorate as soon as 24 hours after harvest. The new bag can extend the useful life of the crop for at least eight days.

The grant funding was announced at an international conference where NRI's cassava bag was named as the "most promising solution" to the Rockefeller Foundation Cassava Innovation Challenge, a global appeal for a novel, transformative, scalable, and easy-to-use solution to post-harvest losses. Six hundred applications from 32 countries were considered by 21 judges before just one entry, the NRI cassava bag, was selected for funding.

The organisers said: "Among the many very good ideas submitted, a straightforward solution – bags – rose to the top of the judges' recommendations as the one that most warranted further support. The judges weighed likely efficacy along with ease of low cost of production … and, most importantly, appeal to farmers. The … bag would … prevent postharvest physiological deterioration until the fresh cassava can be processed or transported for sale at the fresh market."

The bag's curing technology has been developed from NRI's long history of collaborative work on cassava, including earlier research into how fresh roots, given the right levels of temperature and humidity, can heal the wounds they sustain during harvesting.

"Fresh cassava rots all too quickly," says Professor Ben Bennett, NRI's Deputy Director and co-leader of the research team. "Most damage to the roots occurs between the field and the factory. This meant that the solution to the problem lies with their storage. Now, the solution's in the bag. Our technology could be a transformational step for African cassava production."

Professor David Maguire, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Greenwich, says: "The Natural Resources Institute has, once again, won international recognition for its expert knowledge and research. Partnership is at the heart of this project, which is a great example of the university's ambition to find solutions to the challenges that face our world – globally, nationally and locally. Many congratulations to all involved."

The university's Natural Resources Institute is part of the university's Faculty of Engineering & Science. NRI has won many honours for its world-leading expertise on cassava, including the Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher & Further Education, the Guardian University Award for Research Impact and the Times Higher Education Award for Outstanding International Collaboration.

Working with partners from the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB), NRI will use the grant to test and market the bag in Nigeria, the world's largest producer of this crop. Nearly 30 million smallholder farmers grow more than 50 million tonnes a year in the country, equating to 20% of global production.

The Rockefeller Foundation Cassava Innovation Challenge was launched in 2016 by the Rockefeller Foundation, Dalberg, and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

The announcement of the award was made on the evening of Wednesday 29 March at the first All Africa Post-Harvest Congress in Nairobi, Kenya. Professor Ben Bennett collected the award together with NRI's Professor Keith Tomlins.

The Director of the Natural Resources Institute is Professor Andrew Westby.

Story by Public Relations

Picture: Professor Lateef Sanni, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria, with cassava roots. Photograph by Dr Andrew Graffham.