‘RMRDC working to save over $200m from importing starch’

Importation is one of the major challenges the nation is facing for a long time and the present administration is fighting hard to end it. However, the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC) is taking giant strides to achieve this, as the council is working to save the nation from losing over $200 million to the importation of starch annually. BINTA SHAMA reports.

Versatile biomaterials used extensively 

A report by the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC) on the study of starch shows that starch is one of the most versatile biomaterials used extensively in the food, adhesive, plastics, cosmetics, textile, paper and pharmaceutical industries. About 54% of the starch produced globally are utilized for food applications with 46% 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 physiochemical properties and the ease of its modification to other derivatives. The industrial utilisation of starch is determined by starch morphology and its physiochemical characteristics which are typical of its biological origin.

Further report shows that Nigeria imports over $200 million worth of starch annually. However, corn (maize) is the major source of starch globally despite having other sources of commercial starches like cassava, wheat and potato.

In 2017, it was reported that the world starch production was around 68 metric tonnes (MT) but was rated higher to 72 million MT in 2015. The global share of corn starch accounts for more than 80%, whereas cassava starch accounts for only 7.5%.

Types and origin of starch

Corn is a grain domesticated by the indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica in prehistoric times and now widely cultivated for its edible seed especially in tropical and warm temperate zones of the world. The present annual production exceeds over 1 billion MT. The United States of America (USA) and China are the major producers.

Another major raw materials in starch production 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 condition 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% of the world’s starch production 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-production such as in pharmaceutical and in thermo bio-plastics. In addition, its processing techniques is simpler and cost of production lower than corn starch. Nevertheless, on a weight per weight basis, cassava yields about 30% starch, compared to corn that yields about 65%.

Challenges of starch production

The major challenge in corn production is its high requirement of fertilizers  pesticides. This make its production cost to be high and its cultivation expensive for peasant farmers in most developing countries, most especially, in countries where there are no subsidy regimes. But one of the major advantages of maize is its long shelf life.

While for cassava, its major challenge or disadvantages in the utilisation of 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 highest producer of cassava

Further RMRDC report  shows that Nigeria is the highest producer of cassava with over 40 million tonnes per annum, and yet contributes less than 2% of the global cassava starch production. The implication of this is that if Africa must compete in the global cassava starch production, newer sources of raw materials must be exploited amongst 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.

RMRDC undergoes research to compliment production of starch via tacca

The Raw Materials Research and Development Council in collaboration with Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHESTCO) and the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (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 results 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. Consequently, the Council engaged a number of Organizations that are relevant to the development of Tacca value chain in Nigeria in various forms of collaboration. The organisations and private sector companies incorporated into the programme in a Public Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement are working directly in their areas of competence to ensure the success of the initiative. And also, RMRDC mandated Bio-crops Technology Limited to develop protocols for tacca plantlets production for the purpose of proliferation and boosting of Tacca production. So far, it is recorded that 13,000 plantlets have been produced and are being planted in the plantations established in Umudike, Abia State and Otobi, Benue State. Apart from the plantlets being established in the plantation, further reports says that 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.

Importance of tacca for starch production

It is said that tacca plants consist of species such as tacca involucrata and varieties 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 island nations. The underground tuners are relatively hard and potato-like. The tubers serve as important food sources for many Pacific island 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.

According to the further report by the Council, that the programme is a national project involving several organisations. And that Nigeria cannot continue to expend millions of dollars annually on starch importation when the raw material can be developed locally. “it is also unwise, when there are mandated institutions established to develop raw materials such as these locally. Over the last three years, over 18,063,108,395.00 billion naira was expended on importation of starches in Nigeria.

DG’s corner

The Director General RMRDC Professor Hussain Doko Ibrahim said the basic aim of the programme is to save foreign exchange expended on starch importation. Adding that, when successfully concluded and commercilised, the initiative will save the country billions of dollars annually. “This is the money being expended on importation of starches of different grades. This 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. The nation’s 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.”

The Council is of the opinion that with time, tacca starch may replace starch from corn and potatoes in a number of applications in view of its envisaged low cost.