The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, has reassured Nigerians that there is no reason to be anxious about what the new initiative of the federal government on yam export portends for the populace. The minister has specifically said those who are apprehensive about possible non-availability of yams for local consumption as a result of yam export need not be.
This week, Thursday, June 29, 2017, signals a new dawn in Nigeria’s food exports, with a consignment of 72 metric tons of yam leaving the shores of Nigeria to Europe and the US, essentially setting the stage for the country’s return to the global yam value chain as a dominant player in the world market. This is long overdue.
Nigeria has consistently been reckoned globally as the largest producer of yams, at various times accounting for anything between 65 and 76 per cent of the world production. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report, in 1985, reported that Nigeria produced 18.3 million tonnes (metric tons, MT) of yam from 1.5 million hectares, representing 73.8 per cent of total yam production in Africa.
A report by Factfish, a research agency, disclosed that, in 2014, an estimated 45,004,340 MT of yam was produced on 5,416,400 hectares of farmlands at (8,308.9 kilogramme or) 8 metric tons per hectare. This was an increase over the 2013 figure estimated at 35,618,420 MT and 2012 production of 32,318,900 MT, following annual production fluctuations ranging between 26 million MT and 37 million MT from 2001 to 2011.
Ghana, by contrast, as the third largest producer in West Africa after Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire, produces 11.2 per cent the world total, but accounts for over 94 per cent of total yam exports in West Africa, with about 90 per cent of its yams exported to the US, Canada, UK and other European countries.
As a leading exporter of the crop, Ghana’s yam export trade employs over one million in workforce. The export volumes for 2014 stood at US$18.8 million, while 2013 export figure was about US$20million amidst increases in demand for the commodity in both fresh and processed forms in new markets, both overseas and local. Ghana’s ambition, meanwhile, from its National Yam Development Strategy of October 2013, aims at US$5billion of exports by the fifth year – that is 2018.
Nigeria can do better. The export of Nigerian yams is not new. It has, however, been going on rather informally, through other ports and largely unaccounted for. Although we have never been told of any shortage of yams in Nigeria from any of the credible sources, we have not got reliable statistics of yam production and trade, also.
Most statistics on yam production and post-harvest handling and trade have been largely generated from outside official sources, apart from those from research-based organisations within and outside Nigeria. Nigeria’s potential in yam value chain still remains to be unlocked, offering enormous opportunities in the future. But these cannot be turned to wealth until business constraints are dealt with, paving way for generation of reliable data to inform appropriate policy interventions.
The pursuit of a green alternative is a departure from mono-cultural economy. To diversify our economy, therefore, we need to explore new ways of creating wealth and earning foreign exchange, particularly from commodities in which we have competitive advantages in terms of volume and value. We need to occupy our ecological niche in the emerging global market, in yam and other agro-commodities.
In doing so, we have to be more opportunity-focused than risk-focused. We need to embark on innovative interventions to boost production as well as minimise wastes and post-harvest losses and take advantages offered by rising local population of consumers and rich frontier markets. We also need to emphasise value addition in forms of processing, packaging and branding.
Yams are grown in Nigeria in vast areas of the country, covering many agro-ecological zones, from the coastal region in rain forests, wood savannah to southern savannah habitats, spreading over 27 (in addition to FCT) out of Nigerian 36 states. There are therefore more reasons to be optimistic about the prospects.
The yam-producing states are, Abia, Adamawa, Akwa Ibom , Anambra, Bayelsa, Benue, Cross River, Delta, Ebonyi, Edo, Ekiti, Enugu, Imo, Kaduna, Kogi, Kwara, Lagos, Nassarawa, Niger, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Oyo, Plateau, Rivers and Taraba, all having responsibilities to support production and post-production activities, including trade and generation of on-field and off-field data.
A study by Sahel Capital Partners & Advisory, covering a period of December 2013 to March 2014, on the yam value chain in Nigeria with a focus on processing activities, noted that, “despite the unavailability of official data on fresh yam and yam processed products exported from Nigeria, unofficial data from informal sources estimated the value of Nigeria fresh yam exports at about N70 million in 2013.”
Nigeria can leapfrog from that humble earning to substantially higher revenues within a year, and overtake Ghana in the short-term and retaining that lead thereafter. To position Nigeria for a leading role in yam export, the government’s intervention will be addressing issues of storage facilities to minimise post-harvest losses and deployment of mechanised methods yam production in addition to quality assurance.
These include mechanised yam heaps to remove the drudgery of land preparation and a review of applicable standards to qualify for global trade. The Minister has emphatically asked for scientists and research engineers to come up with designs of ploughs that can make yam heaps. Technology is thus expected to boost production for export which, in turn, provides opportunities to earn foreign exchange and produce more yams.
Nearly a third of all yams produce rot away, constituting a significant food loss. A study in Rivers State documented post-harvest loss of 37.33 per cent for yam, caused by a wide variety of factors, ranging from growing conditions to handling at retail level. Not only are losses clearly a waste of food, they also represent a similar waste of human effort, farm inputs, livelihoods, investments and scarce resources such as water.
A lot more work needs to be done with emphasis on impact of environmental variation on yam’s keeping quality. The study has found that yams maintained a fairly constant moisture content at Port Harcourt during storage, losing only four per cent moisture during 22 weeks of storage. In the drier climate of Ibadan, 24 weeks of storage resulted in a moisture loss of 20 per cent.
With appropriate knowledge, yam value chain presents a range of opportunities for farmers to improve their yields and reduce their post-harvest losses. Nigeria is diversifying the presentation of yam in form of flour, chips and chunks. Investments in the provision of low cost processing equipment that is affordable for small scale processors would encourage existing processors in the landscape and potential yam processors.
It is paramount to seek measures that would reduce the level of postharvest losses in the yam value chain. The use of appropriate technologies for the transportation and storage of fresh yam would help to significantly reduce postharvest losses of yam tubers due to breakages in transit over long distances and deterioration due to heat during storage.
An intervention known as Yam improvement for Income and Food Security in West Africa (YIIFSWA) appears poised to double incomes from yam (through multiplying the production of yam) for 3 million smallholders farming families who depend on yam in West Africa, and contribute to food security for processors and consumers.
Over the next five years, YIIFSWA (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) seeks to increase yam productivity (yield and net output) by 40 per cent for 200,000 small holder farmers in Ghana and Nigeria and deliver key research products that will contribute to improving yam productivity and livelihoods of yam farmers.
Raising farmer productivity and reducing losses could be guaranteed with the use of appropriate technology. With the advancements in improved seeds being spearheaded by YIIFSWA and NRCRI, it is imperative that these seeds get distributed in a sustainable manner. The yam minisett technology developed by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Umudike, is expected to contribute to export trade in yam.
The initial challenge, among others, was the scarcity of planting materials for yam because the increase ratio is low, and because consumers eat up the previous harvest, thereby creating scarcity for the next planting season. These concerns about future scarcity of yam informed the adoption of aeroponic system programme at the NRCRI, Umudike.
For multiplication, aeroponics system is intended to end the scarcity and to increase access and affordability to healthy seed yam, thus contributing to ending hunger through conventional breeding. According to the coordinator of YIIFSWA project, Dr Okechukwu Eke-Okoro, “it’s about production of clean and disease–free seed yams to strengthen the formal seed yam system in Nigeria.”
The restructuring and recapitalising of the Bank of Agriculture will enable the government to overcome the lack of finance, inadequate farm inputs, storage facilities and high cost of labour identified as the primary constraints to yam production in the country. Transforming yam trade from an informal to a business status requires policy interventions in private sector investment and establishment of a vibrant value chain. These are now evolving.
With these in place, consumers of yam in Nigeria need not be uneasy about local access to fresh yam.