Manioc (also known as cassava) is rapidly becoming the staple food for the natives of Africa and South Africa. It is the third largest source of carbohydrates for meals in the world. It is very rich in starch and contain significant amounts of calcium, phosphorus and vitamin C. It is often described as the “bread of the tropics”. Many consumers who are allergic to wheat-based food, are having recourse to manioc which is gluten-free and protein-free.
In Mauritius, manioc has traditionally been associated with “poor man’s food”. It was introduced on the island by the French Governor Mahe de Labourdonnais (1735-1749) to feed the local people and the oxen. According to the American plant physiologist, James H. Cock, author of “Cassava : New Potential for a Neglected Crop”, manioc was taken from Indonesia to Mauritius around 1740. Sri Lanka officially imported manioc cuttings from Mauritius in 1786 and some years later, i. e in 1794, India imported the plant directly from South America. During the World Wars I and II when food-laden ships could not reach Port Louis, the population of Mauritius survived on manioc. Mauritius has also the reputation of manufacturing manioc biscuits since 1870. The Biscuiterie Rault, a unique factory, is owned by the Sénèque Family of Mahebourg. Recently Mr Danesswar Sarjua has started with a pioneering project to manufacture flour from manioc and breadfruit.
Multi-faceted and Multifunctional crop
The big advantage with manioc is that it grows well in low-nutrient soil and thus can be cultivated on marginal lands. Grown almost exclusively in the hotter lowlands of the tropics, it requires low rainfall and does not need intensive care. It shows good resistance to drought, diseases and pests. It is an environment-friendly plant that does not need treatment with pesticide or chemical fertilizers. It keeps the fields green and prevents them from being proliferated by weeds and wild vegetation. Although manioc is primarily grown for its roots, all the parts of the plant can be used : the wood as fuel, the leaves and peelings for animal feed and even the stem for dietary salt. It is a multifaceted and multifunctional crop.
Manioc has many potentials. Apart from being consumed as soft-boiled root, it can be processed into flour, tapioca or sagou from which different manioc-based dishes are prepared.    In some countries, it is being used to replace rice and wheat during the period of food shortage. It is also fermented to make alcoholic beverages, such as manioc beer. The demand for manioc by-products – starch, flour and chips – is increasing because they can be preserved for longer and their prices are often more competitive compared with other staple food products.
Biofuel and industrial applications
In terms of modern processing, manioc is being used as raw materials for manufacturing various products such as toothpaste, sorbitol, paper, textile, macaroni, pasta, noodles, mosquito coils and animal feeds. In many countries, manioc is being used as ethanol biofuel. In terms of other non-food uses and industrial applications, manioc is used in the manufacture of the following : adhesives, corrugated boards, gums, wall paper, paper industry, textile industry, wood furniture, particle board, dusting powders, drugs, packaging, plastics, stain remover, concrete stabilizer and moisture remover.
Cancer Treatment
While the bitter variety of manioc leaves are used to treat hypertension, headache and pain, the consumption of the tuber has the potential to become a wonder drug against cancer. Dr Cynthia Jaysuriya of Sri Lanka, who is a patient of bladder cancer, followed a manioc diet, in lieu of tablets and injections, to treat herself. It has been discovered that manioc has a large concentration of vitamin B17 which is active in killing the cancer cell. Manioc is cheap, easy to obtain and easy to cook. By taking manioc as breakfast every morning for one month, she found her bladder clear after undergoing a cystoscopy (bladder examination). However, caution must be taken while preparing the manioc otherwise it can become poisonous. It is always recommended to use freshly harvested manioc and keep the pot open throughout boiling in order to allow the excess hydrocyanic acid to evaporate. It is also advised to avoid consuming ginger or food containing ginger for at least eight hours after consuming manioc.
Manioc farming has some challenges particular to its own. Manual uprooting of manioc is strenuous and one cannot take the risk of harvesting the entire crop at one go if one is not sure of how fast the tubers would be disposed of either for direct consumption or industrial processing. As a rule manioc has to be consumed or processed within 48 hours after harvested. Transporting fresh cassava from the fields to the consumers is indeed a big challenge, especially when the cultivation is located in a remote area. It is race against time. Manioc, unlike other root crops, begins to deteriorate within hours after harvesting. In order to prevent wastage and keep a right balance between supply and demand, some big producers like Nigeria are having recourse to mobile processing units closer to the farms.
Food Security
According to UNCTAD/FAO sources, world production of manioc is around 250 million tones a year. Africa contributes to more than half of global supply, with Nigeria on top representing more than a third of African production. As a staple food, contributing greatly to food security, the African continent consumes almost all its production. Unlike Africa, Asia encourages the development of manioc crop for industrial and energy purpose. However only 10% of the global manioc production is traded. Asia represents 98% of world imports and 97% of exports. In Mauritius, the production of manioc, which is still a relatively small output, has almost doubled over the past five years : from 235 tonnes on an average of 15 hectare in 2006 to 449 tonnes on an acreage of 34 hectares in 2010. [Source : CSO].
The falling price of sugar, the rising costs of production and the paucity of labourers are major factors that are pushing small farmers in Mauritius to abandon their sugar-cane plantations. Instead of leaving the sugar-cane fields abandoned and unproductive, it would be worthwhile to encourage the local farmers to convert their abandoned lands into manioc cultivation with lesser investment. However, the agricultural agencies must facilitate this process by undertaking an awareness campaign and by providing technical assistance and other incentives. This can be complemented by initiating value-addition activities and modernizing the processing lines in the end-use of manioc. But more importantly it would be necessary to put in place a commercialization plan by creating outlets for domestic sale as well as export of the manioc-based products. Given that manioc grows exclusively in the tropical belt, processed manioc can find an export outlet to non-tropical countries as inputs in their pharmaceutical, adhesive, textile, paper, furniture and food industries.