Release Date

April 30, 2008

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CRS Announces $21.8 Million Grant From Gates Foundation to Help Small-Scale African Farmers Protect Cassava From Disease

A $21.8 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is enabling Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and its partners to help small farmers in central and east Africa protect cassava — a critical source of food and income — from two spreading pandemics that are decimating as much as 70 percent of crop yields.

The four-year Great Lakes Cassava Initiative will help reduce the prevalence of cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease in six countries: Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Farmers will gain increased access to improved cassava varieties that are adapted to local conditions, resist diseases and have higher yields — helping to promote food security and ease the burden of the global rise in food prices.

"Cassava is the primary food staple of sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for more than half of all calories consumed. Unfortunately, new and more severe strains of cassava diseases are wiping out fields, currently posing the largest threat to food security in the Great Lakes region," explained Tom Remington, CRS' principal technical advisor for agriculture and food security. "To protect against this risk, the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative will help more than 1 million farm families protect the food source and income they rely on for survival."

With the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and national agricultural research institutions in each country, CRS will help 60 local partners prepare for and respond to the pandemics in the region. Working with more than 4,100 farmer groups, these partners will teach farmers to recognize disease symptoms and take proactive steps to prevent spread. The project will also provide farmers with access to new market opportunities, organize savings and loans communities, fund critical international research and coordinate with related efforts, including the four-year Cassava: Adding Value for Africa (C:AVA) project, also announced today. Funded by the Gates Foundation and to be administered by the Natural Resources Institute of the University of Greenwich, the C:AVA project will help farmers in Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda increase incomes by turning cassava into high-quality processed flour that can be sold at a premium price.

Cassava is a drought-resistant, starchy root crop that requires little labor, produces high yields, and serves as a cheap and rich source of calories as well as minerals and vitamins. However, cassava production faces increased pressure from pests and diseases. Cassava mosaic disease, for example, was first identified in its severe form in Uganda in 1990. It has now spread to affect more than 1 million square miles in central and east Africa, and continues to expand quickly to the east, south and west.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Agricultural Development initiative is working with a wide range of partners to provide millions of small farmers in the developing world — most of whom are women — with tools and opportunities to boost their productivity, increase their incomes and build better lives for themselves and their families. The foundation invests in efforts across the agricultural value chain, from seeds and soil to farm management and market access.

"The recent spike in food prices is driving millions of poor people around the world deeper into hunger and poverty, highlighting the importance of efforts to help small-scale farmers in Africa," said Dr. Rajiv Shah, director of agricultural development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Global Development Program. "This effort will bring together local scientists, NGOs and farmers to expand CRS' successful cassava disease management program and ensure that these farmers can boost their yields and incomes — a critical step so they can lead healthy and productive lives."

Since June 2006, CRS, IITA and their local partners have worked to stem the spread of cassava mosaic disease and banana xanthomonas wilt disease in six countries through the Crop Crisis Control Project, an 18-month effort funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Great Lakes Cassava Initiative will broaden the dissemination of improved varieties and disease-resistant cassava cuttings, while laying the foundation for expansion into southern and west Africa as cassava diseases continue to spread through the continent.

The Great Lakes Cassava Initiative will use advanced diagnostics and mapping technology to create an innovative disease surveillance system in the six countries that identifies farmers under disease threat to target better varieties and training to those households. The grant award will support the improvement of diagnostic technologies for cassava disease and partnership with national agricultural agencies to improve the response to current and future disease outbreaks.

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About Catholic Relief Services (CRS)

CRS is the international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. The agency provides assistance to people in more than 100 countries and territories based on need, regardless of race, nationality or creed. For more information, please visit www.crs.org.

About the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people's health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people — especially those with the fewest resources — have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Based in Seattle, the foundation is led by CEO Patty Stonesifer and co-chair William H. Gates Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.