AWest Africa produces 95% of the world’s yams. The export market holds many opportunities, but the sector needs more government support and investment. Reports Linus Unah
At a bustling roadside market in the small, yam-producing town of Agyaragu in central Nigeria, a group of seven young men fling yams down a line to the last man inside the truck. They load the truck with yams until it is full, their faces glistening with sweat.
The bulk of the yams that come to this market and several others across the town are from small-scale farmers like Samsong Yusuf.
“Yam is our major source of income,” Yusuf, 24, says. “It is not just my family alone, almost everybody tries to produce plenty of yams even though they also farm maize, cassava, sorghum and millet.”
Apart from being a huge source of income and dietary calories (eaten boiled, roasted or pounded into a paste), yams are are an integral part of burials and marriage ceremonies in some villages across West Africa. And there is even a yam festival held annually at the end of harvest.
Every year, more than 50m tonnes of yams are produced in over 4.6m hectares of land in West Africa, mainly in Nigeria, Ghana, Côte D’Ivoire, Togo and Benin Republic. This region makes up about 95% of global production, opening up a window of opportunity for these nations to reap rewards from both domestic and international markets.
But smallholder farmers like Yusuf, who are the backbone of local yam production, are struggling. Yam yields have been badly affected by the low quality of seeds as well as pests and disease. These farmers rely on labour-intensive processes including clearing land, planting thousands of yam seedlings, applying fertiliser and harvesting – a gruelling cycle that can last for up to five months. Their reliance on rain-fed agriculture makes them even more susceptible to the vagaries of climate change such as low rainfall, drought and desertification in arid areas.
Most of them live in rural villages that often have bad roads, cutting off access to large markets. In addition, declining soil fertility, low purchasing prices, low adoption of mechanisation and modern farming techniques alongside post-harvest losses and poor government policies combine to drive down income and produce available for markets.
Despite these challenges, the drive to export yams overseas and the potential foreign exchange earnings therein continue to push the major yam-producing countries in the region to encourage farmers to produce more yams.
Although Nigeria is the largest producer of yams (accounting for more than 60% of global production), Ghana (the world’s second largest producer) appears to be making headway in the export market, with more than 90% of the export produce coming from the nation.
Fresh yam produce from West Africa continues to be in demand in Europe, North America and in some parts of Asia. In 2013, Ghana became the first in West Africa to launch a national yam strategy, which aims to increase fresh yam exports, address poverty, develop the value chain and better the lot of Ghanaians engaged in the sector. Ghana’s export value for yams hit around $27.5m in 2016.
In June 2017, Nigeria started a yam export programme targeting Europe and the US and created a technical committee to manage the programme. The current goal is to export at least 480 tonnes of yams every month.
Despite these government initiatives, private sector participation is critical. Seed producers, farmers, processors, traders, exporters and off-takers all play a key role in getting yams overseas.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the development of the industry is its place amid other competing national priorities. Policy decisions tend to favour cereals and other export crops like cocoa, which have more developed value chains. Industrial companies are few and far between amid a dearth of government policies centred on yams. Smallholder farmers still need training on the exact varieties meant for export and formal seed systems need to be promoted.
The risk of spoilage during transit is high. Between 20 to 30% of the export volume from West Africa ends up rotten on arrival, driving up the overall cost for exporters. It can take up to six weeks before a ship berths in the US, for example.
What can be done to address these challenges? Ghana has been able to establish a single National Yam Export Pack-House to cut down on bureaucracy and improve quality.
Yam associations like the Yam Farmers, Processors and Marketers Association of Nigeria or the Ghana Yam Producers and Exporters Association (GYPEA) are working on improving export quality and lowering rejections of shipments. GYPEA provides technical advice and support, and ensures that over 40 members adhere strictly to standards for export.
Intra-Africa trade could be another means of expanding earnings. Mali, a minor yam producer in the region, relies heavily on its neighbour Côte d’Ivoire for its yam supplies. In 2016 alone, almost all of Mali’s yam imports were from Côte d’Ivoire, which raked in over $800,000 in total earnings. This is exactly the kind of trade that the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement signed early last year by 44 African countries aims to encourage.
To address low yields because of poor seed quality and intensive labour operations, researchers are advancing the use of temporary immersion bioreactors, aeroponics, and minisett technologies to increase multiplication rates and seed quality and produce pest-resistant varieties that will help farmers to grow high-yielding seedlings.
Young Nigerians are gradually venturing into production using aeroponic greenhouses, with thousands of yam vines that can produce millions of high-yielding, pest-resistant seed yams.
For the entire West Africa region to benefit from exporting yams and outdo competitors like Jamaica and Costa Rica, more investment needs to be poured into supporting farmers with fertilisers, loans and tractors, building the much-needed infrastructure for transportation, modern cold storage and packing facilities, and encouraging both local and foreign investors to step into the game.
Mechanised farming and modern farming techniques are crucial to help farmers grow yams that are well suited for exports, making funding crucial.
“People produce a lot of yams here,” farmer Samson Yusuf boasts. “We can feed Nigeria and anywhere in the world if we get the support we need.”