The foundation vegetable cassava is a significant meals staple in dozens of nations the world over. Drought-resistant, nutritious, and attractive, it has additionally turn into a significant supply of earnings for small-scale, rural farmers in locations like West Africa and Southeast Asia.
However the utility of cassava has all the time been restricted by its brief postharvest shelf lifetime of two to a few days. That places tens of millions of farmers who depend on the crop in a troublesome place. The farmers can’t plant greater than they’ll promote shortly in native markets, and so they’re usually pressured to promote beneath market costs as a result of consumers know the harvest will spoil quickly. In consequence, cassava farmers are among the many world’s poorest individuals.
Now the startup CassVita is shopping for cassava instantly from farmers and making use of a patent-pending biotechnology to increase its shelf life to 18 months. The method has the potential to remodel economies in rural, impoverished areas the place tens of millions of households depend on the crop for earnings.
CassVita tells farmers how a lot cassava the corporate will purchase every month, and processes the cassava at a producing facility in Cameroon. It at the moment sells the primary model of its product as a powdered meals to individuals in Cameroon and to West African immigrants within the U.S.
However CassVita founder and CEO Pelkins Ajanoh ’18 says the way forward for the corporate will revolve round its subsequent product: a cassava-based flour that may act as a direct substitute for wheat. The wheat substitute would dramatically broaden CassVita’s goal market to incorporate the fast-growing, trillion-dollar wholesome meals market.
Ajanoh says CassVita is at the moment capable of improve farmers’ incomes by about 400 % via its purchases.
“Our goal is to leverage proprietary know-how to supply a more healthy and better-tasting different to wheat whereas creating prosperity for native farmers,” Ajanoh says. “We’re hoping to faucet into this big market whereas empowering farmers, all by minimizing spoilage and incentivizing farmers to plant extra.”
Gaining confidence to assist a group
Whereas rising up in Cameroon, Ajanoh’s mother and father all the time emphasised the significance of schooling for him and his three siblings. However Ajanoh misplaced his father when he was 13, and his mom moved to the U.S. a 12 months later to assist present for the household. Throughout that point, Ajanoh lived along with his grandmother, a cassava farmer. For a few years, Ajanoh watched his grandmother harvest cassava with out making any lasting monetary positive aspects. He remembers feeling powerless as his grandmother struggled to pay for issues like diabetes remedy.
Then Ajanoh earned the highest marks on the nationwide exams that Cameroonian college students take earlier than faculty. After highschool, he joined his mom within the U.S. and got here to MIT to review mechanical engineering. As soon as on campus, Ajanoh says he had lunch with new individuals on a regular basis to study from them.
“I’d by no means had this group of intellectuals — and so they have been from everywhere in the world — so I soaked up as a lot as I may,” Ajanoh says. “That sparked an curiosity in entrepreneurship, as a result of MIT is tremendous entrepreneurial. Everybody’s pondering of beginning one thing cool.”
Ajanoh additionally bought a confidence enhance throughout an internship in the summertime after his junior 12 months, when he created self-driving know-how for Common Motors that was ultimately patented.
“It made me notice I may do one thing actually priceless for the world, and by the tip of that internship I used to be pondering, ‘Now I wish to remedy an issue in my group,’” he says.
Returning to the crop he knew properly, Ajanoh acquired a sequence of grants from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund to experiment with methods to increase the shelf lifetime of cassava. In the summertime of 2018, the MIT-Africa program sponsored three MIT college students to fly to Cameroon with him to take part in internships with the corporate.
At present CassVita companions with growth banks to assist farmers get loans to purchase the cassava sticks used for planting. Ajanoh says CassVita selected a powdered meals for its first product as a result of it requires much less advertising to promote to West Africans, who’re accustomed to the dish. Now the corporate is engaged on a cassava flour that it’s going to market to all shoppers searching for wholesome options to wheat that can be utilized in pastries and different baked items.
“Cassava is smart as a world substitute to wheat as a result of it’s gluten free, grain free, nut free, and it additionally helps with glucose regulation, to normalize blood sugar ranges, to decrease triglycerides, so the well being advantages are thrilling,” Ajanoh says. “However the farmers have been nonetheless dwelling in poverty, so if we may remedy the shelf-life drawback then we may empower these farmers to supply more healthy wheat options to the worldwide market.”
The venture has taken on further urgency now that the battle in Ukraine is limiting that nation’s wheat and grain exports, elevating costs, and heightening meals insecurity in areas across the globe.
Displaying the worth of serving to farmers
Ajanoh says nearly all of individuals farming cassava are girls, and he says the challenges associated to cassava’s shelf life have contributed to gender inequities in lots of communities. In truth, of the roughly 500 farmers CassVita works with in Cameroon, 95 % are girls.
“That has all the time excited me as a result of I used to be raised by girls, so engaged on one thing that would empower girls of their communities and provides them authority is fulfilling,” Ajanoh says.
Ajanoh has already heard from farmers who’ve been capable of ship their youngsters to highschool for the primary time due to improved monetary conditions. Now, as CassVita continues to scale, Ajanoh desires to remain centered on the know-how that allows these new enterprise fashions.
“We’re evolving right into a meals know-how firm,” Ajanoh says. “We want to concentrate on leveraging know-how to influence lives and enhance outcomes in these communities. Proper now, we’re going all the best way to shoppers as a result of this is a chance the Nestles and the Unilevers of the world received’t decide up as a result of the market doesn’t make sense to them but. So, we have now to construct this firm and present them the worth.”