Bola Adeyemo was always seeing sick children on the street. In 2001, she began to pick up some of these children during her commutes home from her job in finance, take them to a nearby clinic, and pay for their care.
After several months and many children, she asked a doctor why they were so ill. The problem was malnutrition—and that answer changed the way Bola saw her place in the community.
“My kids consumed milk and eggs, but others didn’t have such luxury,” she said.
Bola left finance to help the community and began giving eggs to every child she met with hopes that the animal protein would be a sort of preventative medicine. While the eggs provided good nutrition, this didn't seem like a sustainable solution to the problem. Then she met Paul Ilona, a cassava breeder at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, who told her they were exploring ways to make cassava more nutritious.
In 2011, when HarvestPlus Nigeria began developing and disseminating vitamin A cassava (with Ilona at the helm), she joined the on-farm trials before the varieties became officially available for farmers—and decided to create the Senator Adeyemo Women Empowerment Cooperative (SAWEC) to propel the solution forward. Named after her husband, the concept is centered on a processing center at which local women develop skills that will improve their livelihoods and nutritional status.
What began as one woman’s mission has grown into a quest to prevent malnutrition. Bola’s now plentiful network of farmers, agrodealers—who aggregate smallholder farmers’ harvests and sell them in bulk—and processors also offers a safety net for those wishing to gamble on health.
“This will help fix the [nutritional] problems,” she remembers thinking. “This is what started my passion.”
Becoming Mama SAWEC
I look out at the brush around us, wondering what we’re stopping for. Mama SAWEC, as she is now better known, is already out of her car.
Farmers in Nigeria allow various flowers and shrubs to grow around their harvest to prevent cattle from eating their profits. They tell me this also prevents neighbors from knowing they are comfortable—if everyone around them appears to be still striving, they won’t ask for help.
But cut away some of the brush in the proper places, and soon enough, the horizontal lines on the beige stems of cassava come into view. When tubers are carefully unearthed and peeled, the pride on the farmer’s face is as unmistakable as the yellow tint of betacarotene which makes this root so nutritious.
We visit a few farms and roadside stands in Eruwa, in Oyo State, and the message from the farmers is similar: We eat it, and we wanted to share. Some distribute biofortified vitamin A cassava stems, sweet potato vines, or maize seeds to neighbors—if not to grow, then to pique their interest and drive demand.
We meet a poultry farmer who has begun to experiment with growing vitamin A cassava in a field a few kilometers away. He wants to grow more, he tells us in Yoruba, but worries that he doesn’t have a market. Mama swiftly interrupts him; her travel companion is a processor she has recently trained who is looking to widen his network of farmers.
As we munch bananas from one farm stand, Mama ushers us across the road to the farmer’s house to tell a story. She had convinced the family to rent a roaster to add value to their vitamin A cassava by processing and roasting it into granules called gari. The farmer smiles, remembering his hesitancy. “What do we do with yellow gari?” he had asked.
Mama tempered his anxiety that first day with a promise to buy what remained. As customers came to the family’s produce stand, they stopped to admire the yellow gari. Upon learning it had not been enhanced with red palm oil (sometimes added to reduce the cyanide-producing compounds in many varieties of cassava), and instead was made from more nutritious tubers, they curiously tasted and purchased the new product—until there was none left for Mama.
Rooting her impact
Mama’s tour de force is part skill-building, part nutrition awareness, and part grit. “We’ve impacted thousands of households,” she said, “but I felt strongly that this work could only be sustained by introducing a business angle.”
She takes us to her processing center—opened in 2015 to help commercialize farmer outputs and biofortified food products. Most days of the week, the place has as many as 20 women and adolescent girls huddled around their respective stations. The majority sit in a shaded open space—some with babies on their backs—carefully peeling roots. The most experienced can peel a tuber the size of a water bottle in less than 20 seconds by spinning it in their hand and then flipping it. It pays to be fast.
Two tons worth of tubers are washed and grated there every day. Most are then fermented for two days to reduce and detoxify cyanide-producing compounds before being pressed and re-grated. What makes gari distinct from flour is the final step: roasting. Skilled roasters carefully move the cassava around on one side of a special flattop, allowing granules to form. It is then moved to the opposite side to set before it is sifted and cooled.
Two of the women have been carefully roasting gari there since the center’s inception. They, too, are paid based on their productivity; they are making at least 1000₦ (2.75 USD) a day, which is a lot in local terms, but for Mama, it is policy. To empower them to improve their livelihoods, she offers three things to the women she employs: better wages, consumption of vitamin A cassava for health, and training.
“They stay because it’s easy work, but it requires skill,” she says. Mama signals to one of the women to let me try. All laugh as I attempt to strike the proper balance of roasting without burning the gari—or myself. (I do neither, but I don’t have the right touch.)
The final product is sold to visitors by the kilogram or driven by the truckload to restaurants in Mama’s network. It can be consumed straight as a snack, a drink, formed into starchy doughs like eba or fufu (which also contains plantain flour), or in soups like egusi made with pumpkin seeds (my personal favorite).
I look out at the tin roofs dotting the hills around us. SAWEC’s farmers may hide their progress in the brush, but that beautiful betacarotene-derived yellow is turning heads and uprooting hidden hunger—one vitamin A cassava tuber at a time.