Boosting the productivity of cassava-based systems in DR Congo

Bernard Vanlauwe, b.vanlauwe@cgiar.org, Patrick Mutuo, Nzola Mahungu, and Pieter Pypers

The intensification of African agriculture is an essential response to the increasing demands for more food without endangering important natural resources, including the forests in the Congo basin.

Because of its potential to produce some roots, cassava is often considered a crop that “likes” poor soils but, as all other crops, it responds to and requires a sufficient amount of nutrients to produce attainable yields. The transformation of cassava from a food security to a cash crop in many countries in Africa further stresses the need for nutrient replenishment strategies in cassava-based systems since the transport of cassava roots to processing plants can accelerate the amount of nutrients exported from the farm.

In recent years, integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) (see article by Vanlauwe et al. this publication) has been accepted by many organizations as the underlying technical framework for the sustainable intensification of smallholder systems in Africa. This article highlights the progress of work on the application of ISFM principles in the context of cassava-based systems in DR Congo.

In DR Congo application of 2 bags of NPK fertilizer per hectare results in root yield increases from 30% to 160%.
In DR Congo application of 2 bags of NPK fertilizer per hectare results in root yield increases from 30% to 160%.

Current situation
In the highlands of Sud-Kivu province, cassava and common beans are among the main food crops traditionally cultivated in mixed cropping systems. Cassava monocropping is done only in marginal fields where other crops fail to yield. Farmers generally allocate about 0.2–0.3 ha (30–45% of their farm area) to cassava–legume intercropping and obtain average yields of 400–800 kg/ha of legume grains and 10–15 t/ha of cassava fresh roots. Pressure on land is very heavy due to high population densities and justifies agricultural intensification and investment in soil productivity.

In Bas-Congo province, on the other hand, farmers practice slash-and-burn agriculture. Cassava is grown for 1 or 2 years, followed by fallow periods of 2 to 4 years. In the past two decennia, the population has grown by more than 50% leading to more demands for food, especially from nearby Kinshasa. Improved and sustainable, fire-free production systems are urgently needed. In DR Congo, most farmers have no access to improved varieties and have very limited options to improve soil fertility.

Fertilizer and germplasm
First, the use of improved, pest-and disease-resistant varieties in combination with appropriate rates of NPK fertilizer was observed to result in a 30–160% increase in cassava root yields in eastern DR Congo. A visible increase was observed in yields of the stems, important for the production of planting material (see photo). In western DR Congo, cassava yields doubled from 12 to 25 t/ha with the application of moderate rates of NPK and reached over 40 t/ha with higher rates. Several initiatives are taking place to ensure that large quantities of planting materials reach smallholder farmers with specific attention being given to those varieties resistant to cassava mosaic disease and the brown streak virus.

Figure 1. Cassava storage root yields as affected by application of compound fertilizer (17 nitrogen: 17 phosphorus: 17 potassium) at rates of 0 (F0), 40 (F1), 120 (F2), and 200 (F3) kg K/ha, and green manure (TI = <em/>Tithonia sp.; CH = <i>Chromolaena </i>sp.) at 2.5 t dry matter/ha alone or together with compound fertilizer at 40 kg K/ha in two trial locations in Bas-Congo, DRC. SED: standard error of difference at P<0.05. Source: Adapted from Pypers et al. 2012
Figure 1. Cassava storage root yields as affected by application of compound fertilizer (17 nitrogen: 17 phosphorus: 17 potassium) at rates of 0 (F0), 40 (F1), 120 (F2), and 200 (F3) kg K/ha, and green manure (TI = Tithonia sp.; CH = Chromolaena sp.) at 2.5 t dry matter/ha alone or together with compound fertilizer at 40 kg K/ha in two trial locations in Bas-Congo, DRC. SED: standard error of difference at P<0.05. Source: Adapted from Pypers et al. 2012

Combined application of fertilizer and organic inputs
Fertilizer response and the effect of combining inorganic and organic nutrient resources were also evaluated on cassava systems. The most common fertilizer, NPK 17:17:17, was applied in western DR Congo with or without green manure made from Tithonia sp. or Chromolaena sp., and the effects on storage root yield were evaluated in two locations with a differing soil fertility status (Fig. 1). Both plants are commonly found in fallow vegetation in western DR Congo. Control yields were similar at the two sites (12 t/ha), but the response to fertilizer differed between the sites: storage root yields reached 40 t/ha at Kiduma but only 20 t/ha at Mbuela with the addition of 200 kg K/ha. A much larger response to Tithonia sp. green manure was also observed at Kiduma, which was likely to have been related to the higher quality and nutrient contents of the green manure grown at that site.

Combining organic and inorganic nutrient resources did not result in positive interactions. No significant differences were observed between the yields after the sole application of either fertilizer or green manure to the control and those obtained with the combined application of both nutrient sources (Pypers et al. 2012). In maize-based systems, positive interactions between organic and inorganic fertilizers often arise from better synchrony in N release and N uptake by the crop. In cassava systems, where K is more often the most limiting nutrient, such a mechanism is likely to be less relevant.

In the highlands of eastern DRC alternative spacing of cassava  (2 × 0.5 m instead of 1 × 1 m) allows integration of four lines of legumes during one season and two lines of legumes during the second season without affecting cassava densities and yields.
In the highlands of eastern DRC alternative spacing of cassava (2 × 0.5 m instead of 1 × 1 m) allows integration of four lines of legumes during one season and two lines of legumes during the second season without affecting cassava densities and yields.

In eastern DR Congo, the use of improved germplasm did not result in yield increases without the simultaneous implementation of other ISFM components. Modifying the crop arrangement by planting cassava at 2 m between rows and 0.5 m within the row, intercropped with four legume lines, increased bean yields during the first season and permitted a second bean intercrop. This can also increase the total legume production by up to 1 t/ha and resulted in additional revenues of almost $1000/ha (see photo). The crop arrangement or a second legume intercrop did not affect cassava root yields. Fertilizer application increased both legume and cassava yields, and net revenue by $400–700/ha with a marginal rate of return of 1.6–2.7. Replacing the common bean intercrop by groundnut increased net revenue by $200–400/ha, partly because of the higher market value of the grains, but mostly due to a positive effect on yield of cassava storage roots. Soybean affected cassava yields negatively because of its high biomass production and long maturity period; modifications are needed to integrate a soybean intercrop into the system.

Local adaptation
Due to the high variability in soil fertility status, the varying landscape features, and the variation in access to inputs, local adaptation is required to ensure that the investments made by cassava-producing households  result in the highest returns, in line with the resources (e.g., cash, land, labor) that these households have (see photo). Such adaptation efforts are best led by extension and development partners that have the required skills and capacity to implement such efforts at scale. In eastern DR Congo, erosion is the most urgent issue to be tackled to enhance the sustainability of cassava-based systems. Results from Southeast Asia with the use of live hedges should be explored for these environments.

Cassava land preparation varies widely in DRC partly affected by slope and water status of the land.
Cassava land preparation varies widely in DRC partly affected by slope and water status of the land.

Outlook
These findings demonstrate the large potential of ISFM to increase productivity in cassava–legume systems in DR Congo. This is crucial in view of the fact that cassava is changing from being almost only a food security crop to one for which there is high demand in local and urban markets. The intensification of production is thus a prerequisite for sustaining cassava-producing households and ISFM can assist in achieving such benefits. However, these benefits were not observed in all study sites. In poor soils, productivity increases were variable or absent, and soil amendments are required. Better targeting and local adaptation of the technologies are possible with a better understanding of the conditions under which positive effects occur.

References
Pypers, P., J.M. Sanginga, K. Bishikwabo, M. Walangululu, and B. Vanlauwe. 2011. Increased productivity through integrated soil fertility management in cassava–legume intercropping systems in the highlands of Sud-Kivu, DR Congo. Field Crops Research 120: 76–85.
Pypers, P., W. Bimponda, J.P. Lodi-Lama, B. Lele, R. Mulumba, C. Kachaka, P. Boeckx, R. Merckx, and B. Vanlauwe. 2012. Combining mineral fertilizer and green manure for increased, profitable cassava production. Agronomy Journal, in press.

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