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Tacca Production’ll Reduce Capital Flight On Starch Importation – Ibrahim

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Dr Hussaini Ibrahim is the director-general of the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC). In this interview with NKECHI ISAAC, he highlights what Nigeria stands to gain through local production of tacca. The excerpts.

What is the importance of starch and what are its industrial applications?

Starch is one of the most versatile biomaterials used extensively in the food, textile, cosmetics, plastics, adhesives, paper and pharmaceutical industries. About 54 per cent of the starches produced globally are utilized for food applications with 46 per cent for non-food or industrial applications. The diverse industrial usage of starch is premised on its availability at low cost, high calorific value, inherent excellent physicochemical properties and the ease of its modification to other derivatives. The industrial utilization of starch is determined by starch morphology and its physicochemical characteristics which are typical of its biological origin.  Nigeria currently imports over 200 million dollars’ worth of starches annually.

What are the major raw materials for industrial starch production globally and are these major raw materials available in Nigeria?

The present sources of commercial starch are corn (maize), wheat, potato, cassava and rice. Corn is the major source globally. In 2017, the world starch production was 68 million MT and rose to 72 million MT in 2015. The global share of corn starch accounts for more than 80 per cent, whereas cassava starch accounts for only 7.5 per cent.

Another major raw material is cassava which is also referred to as tapioca, manioc or yucca in other parts of the world.  It is one of the most important food crops in the humid tropics.  It is highly adaptable to conditions of low nutrient availability and it is able to survive drought conditions. However, with over 200 million MT of world cassava root production, cassava starch contributes less than 8 per cent of the world starch production compared to starches derived from other plants in spite of its greater paste clarity, viscosity, freeze-thaw stability and its high stability in acidic products.

It also has excellent properties for use in non-food production such as in pharmaceuticals and in thermo bio-plastics. In addition, its processing technique is simpler and cost of production lower than corn starch. Nevertheless, on a weight per weight basis, cassava yields about 30 per cent starch, compared to corn that yields about 65 per cent. One of the major disadvantages of cassava utilisation for starch production is that the root must be processed within 2-3 days of harvesting.  Also, the use of cassava for starch production faces stiff competition in many African countries where it is used to produce many staple products that yield more income for farmers. Nigeria, for example, is the highest producer of cassava with over 40 million MT/annum, yet it contributes less than 2 per cent of the global cassava starch production.  The implication of this is that if Africa must compete in the global starch production, newer sources of raw materials must be exploited among the carbohydrate crops that are not fully utilized as staple food crops.

As a result of these, a number of research activities have been embarked on to isolate plant species that are not widely used as food materials to compliment cassava as raw material for starch production, most especially, in Africa.  As a result of this, the Raw Materials Research and Development Council in collaboration with Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHESTCO) and the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research, Idu (NIPRD), carried out extensive search for alternative indigenous crops for starch production. The research and development initiatives were focused extensively on the properties of relatively underutilized plants such as Icacina trichantha, Tacca involucrata and Anchomanes difformis growing in Nigeria.  The result of the R&D efforts showed tacca tuber as the most plausible alternative for starch production.  As a result of this, a multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary programme was embarked upon to develop tacca as a complimentary raw material for industrial starch production in the country.

Among the objectives of the programme achieved so far are the extraction and production of pharmaceutical and industrial grade starches from tacca roots and utilizing them as excipients in drugs formulation and in other industrial applications.  In addition, extraction and production of glucose syrup and other forms of adhesives from tacca starches have been done. Efforts are ongoing to domesticate and encourage the cultivation of the plant in the most adaptable areas in the country for sustainable industrial use.

What is tacca and how sustainable do you think its production can be in Nigeria compared to cassava that is very popular and produced in all parts of the country?

Tacca plants consist of species such as tacca involucrata and synonyms such as tacca leontopetaloids, tacca hawaiiensis and tacca cristata.  The plant belongs to the order Dioscoreales and family Dioscoreaceae which in older texts were treated as belonging to the family Taccaceae. The common names are Polynesian arrowroot and Bat flower. They are native to tropical regions of Africa, Australia, and south-eastern Asia, and have been domesticated in the Pacific lsland nations. The underground tubers are relatively hard and potato-like. The tubers serve as important food sources for many Pacific lsland cultures, especially amongst the inhabitants of low islands.

Each plant can produce 6-10 tubers weighing from 70g to 1kg.  The plant species are only consumed by the rural people in some parts of northern Nigeria.  The species have maturity periods of 4-5 months. In Nigeria the plants grow in the wild, with an annual production estimated at over 20 million MT.  The consumption of the plant species is not very popular, making their possible uses as industrial raw materials for industrial starch production highly plausible. Thus, as the plant species are not widely consumed as food, their development will boost starch production locally as present efforts point towards possible production of starch of high industrial potentials from the species. So far efforts to boost tacca production are yielding good results and considerable volume of tacca are being harvested from farms established locally for this study.  Hopefully, before the end of 2019 planting season, a lot of other achievements would have been recorded.  This will make it possible to promote tacca farming and free cassava for food security purposes.

What efforts are the collaborating organisations making to develop this new source and how far has the multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary approaches gone to ensure sustainable production of tacca starch and its derivatives locally in line with the highlighted objectives?

Like I said earlier, this is a national programme that involves several organisations.  It is expedient for me to stress that Nigeria cannot continue to expend millions of dollars annually on starch importation when this raw material can be developed locally.  It is also unwise, when there are mandated institutions established to develop raw materials such as these locally.  Let me point out the fact that within the last three years, over 18,063,108,395.00 billion naira was expended on importation of starches in Nigeria.

Obviating this development, has, therefore, become imperative. Consequently, this collaboration engaged a number of organisations that are relevant to the development of tacca value chain in Nigeria.  All these organisations and the private sector companies incorporated into the programme in a PPP arrangement are working directly in their areas of competence to ensure the success of this RMRDC initiative.  For the purpose of proliferation and boosting of tacca production, the council mandated Bio-crops Technology Limited to develop protocols for tacca plantlets production.  As at now 13,000 plantlets have been produced and are being planted in plantations established in Umudike and Otobi.

As Umudike has the mandate for root crops development in Nigeria, it has been made the centre for development of tacca plantations.  As a result, all plantation development activities are being coordinated by the organization.  Apart from the plantlets being established in the plantation, multi-locational and agronomic studies are also being carried out at Otobi, Benue State.  More than 1 million naira worth of tubers were acquired and planted at the two sites.  Out of these, approximately 2 tonnes of tacca have been harvested and sent to SHESTCO while about 6 tonnes are being processed for starch production.

Within the intricate web of this programme, 40kg of tacca starch produced at SHESTCO was sent to FUNAB for production of glucose syrup.  The syrup produced had been tested at industrial level and the result compare favourably with cassava glucose syrup.  Also, RMRDC in collaboration with the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, have developed a 150 litres bioreactor that is being tested for optimization purposes.  So far, alpha and glucose amylose enzymes have been produced and tested out of the starch used for glucose syrup production.  The syrup has been found to reduce reaction time significantly.

Some of the tacca starches produced at SHESTCO were also sent to Golden Empress Cold Water Starch Production Company in Warri for trial production of cold water starch.  The results obtained so far are very encouraging and compare favourably with cassava cold water starch.  Also, some of the cassava starch produced at SHESTCO is being used for physicochemical and viscosity studie, at NIPRD, Idu.  The pharmacopeia studies carried out on the samples exhibited good characteristics, comparable to cassava starch, and the pharmaceutical grade starch produced have been used for production of paracetamol tablets.

It is hoped that before the end of next year, 2019, all the integrated developmental work on tacca starch production would have been completed and the project commercialised.  The remaining aspects of the project are being pursued assiduously.  These include production of more tacca starch for tests and analysis, large scale production of packaged and branded cold water starch, production of large scale glucose syrup and completion of the test analyses on samples of paracetamol produced from the pharmaceutical grade starch, including, the stabilization of the alpha and glucose amylase enzymes.  The work on the development of the agronomic characteristics of tacca is also on-going and this may be concluded by the second quarter of 2019.  In view of the potential industrial use of the plant species locally and the possibility of exporting it to other countries, the council has initiated advocacy programmes on tacca planting by local farmers.

When completed, how much do you think this initiative will generate locally?

Our first intention is to save foreign exchange expended on starch importation.  When successfully concluded and commercialized, the initiative will save the country billions of naira annually.  This is the money being expended on importation of starches of different grades into the country.  The project will also expand the scope and profitability of local farmers by incorporating tacca into the agro-industrial complex in the country and free cassava and corn for food security purposes.  Another very important component of this programme is its job creation and other poverty alleviation potentials.  Our starch manufacturing companies will have access to low cost raw materials as the issue of competitive use of tacca may not arise as the tubers are not widely consumed as food in Nigeria.  I have the belief that with time, tacca starch may replace starch from corn and potatoes in a number of applications in view of its envisaged low cost.


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