Yams are closely associated with the culture of the people in sub-Saharan Africa, contributing significantly to wealth and improving food security.
Traditionally, yams play a significant role in societal rituals such as marriage ceremonies, making the crop a yardstick of wealth evaluation for the people especially in the yam producing communities.
Apart from the cultural role, yams are reputed for their buffer against food crises, especially in regions with a notorious history of drought.
According to statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, an estimated 48.7 million tonnes of yam were produced worldwide in 2005, with sub-Saharan Africa accounting for 97 per cent of this figure.
In Nigeria alone, export earnings from yams hit N56bn in 2008, up from N37bn realised in 2007. The figures underpinned the socio-economic importance of yams. Farmers have constantly affirmed that yam cultivation is a veritable source of income.
A sampling of farmers’ opinions conducted by IITA recently appeared to depict their new found excitement.
”Cultivating yams have proved profitable,” says Zacheus Oladunmi, a farmer with five children who made a fortune from yam cultivation in Oolelope Local Government of Oyo State.
As a beneficiary of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture‘s improved yam varieties, Oladunni says he had more than doubled his yield over the years, utilising some of the incomes from yams to build a house and train his children.
Before now, Oladunmi lived under the same roof with his father in a ‘family house‘ made up of huts but now he has been able to own a modern house with corrugated roof sheets.
”My children are now having better education… I pray they will be better farmers in the future using modern farm equipment,” he says.
Like Oladunmi, several other resource-poor farmers in Oorelope and Irepo LGAs have been economically empowered through the adoption of improved varieties and modern farm techniques in yam cultivation.
Today, Oorelope and Irepo LGAs of Oyo north are in the lexicon of yam producing communities in Nigeria, contesting for prominence as yam growing spots with Zaki Biam in Benue State and other communities in Nassarawa State.
For Alhaji Ibrahim Oloyoyo, yam cultivation brings not just incomes but also an ease in life and guarantees food security.
”I am now living a comfortable life as a yam farmer,” says Oloyoyo.
In the last two years, Oloyoyo‘s sales from yams have enabled him to purchase a private jeep.
As a farmer from childhood, he had a major breakthrough in farming after coming in contact with IITA.
He adopted the improved varieties offered to communities free of charge and also embraced and put to practice improved agronomic techniques offered by IITA scientists as part of extension services.
”I can‘t tell you how much I have but the house, vehicles and children you see are products of yam farming,” he says.
But the flip side of the coin is that increasing yam production in sub-Saharan Africa is challenged by several factors not limited to pest and diseases but also cost of planting materials.
Besides, other bottlenecks include decreasing soil fertility, inadequate yield potential of local varieties and labour.
The labour requirements in yam cultivation for mounding, staking (especially in the forest zone), weeding, and harvesting exceed those for other starchy staples such as cassava. ”These account for about 40 per cent of yam production costs while 50 per cent of the expenditure goes to planting materials,” says IITA Director, Research for Development, Dr. Robert Asiedu.
Resource-poor farmers often contend with hoes and cutlasses to make yam heaps, dissipating large amount of energy. To most farmers, this is a disincentive to yam cultivation.
“Apart from post-harvest losses, these are areas research must address because human labour is declining on the farms,” says Oladunmi.
Over the years, the Ibadan-based IITA has been working on yam improvement and seeking ways of mitigating the challenges faced by farmers.
This certainly is responsible for the transformation in livelihoods of rural yam producing communities in Oyo North region.
Mr. Christian Okonkwo, IITA‘s International Yam Trials Manager, says over 1,000 farmers in Oyo North alone have benefited from IITA improved varieties.
”These varieties are responsible for the success stories recorded by Oloyoyo, Oladunmi and several other farmers,” he says.
”Our work has revealed that yam cultivation can actually help farmers out of poverty,” he says.
Aside from lifting up incomes, yams (and indeed the roots and tubers) act as a cushion to food crisis in Africa . Some experts argue that the severity of food price spikes remain minimal in West Africa because of the cultivation and consumption of yams.
”Countries in sub-Saharan Africa that rely so much on grains face food crisis because once there is drought, the effect is severe. But the situation is different for the root and tubers because they can tolerate drought for some time. This is why we are now encouraging the cultivation of cereals with tubers so that farmers will not lose all in case there is drought or crisis,” Okonkwo explains.
According to statistics, average daily consumption per capita of yams is highest in Bénin (364 kcal), Côte d‘Ivoire (342 kcal), Ghana (296 kcal), and Nigeria (258 kcal).
Recent breakthroughs at IITA indicate that yam cultivation through the vines might free up more tubers for consumption.
The research, which is funded by the Japanese government, the Sasakawa Africa Association, Tokyo University of Agriculture and the International Cooperation Center for Agricultural Education, Nagoya University , Japan, has seen the propagation of yams through vines cuttings.
Other partners in the research include the Tokyo University of Agriculture; National Root Crops Research Institute – Umudike, Nigeria; Crop Research Institute, Ghana and the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development, Cameroon.
IITA Yam Physiologist, Dr. Hidehiko Kikuno, says the research will address most of the challenges faced by resource-poor farmers by tackling the spread of nematodes and pests, preservation of more seed tubers and the enhancement of high seedling multiplication rate.