AN ambitious effort to boost production of orphan crops like yam has been launched in Ghana and Nigeria. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and a host of partners announced the landmark new initiative to dramatically boost yam productivity and double the incomes of three million yam farmers in West Africa on April 2.
The project, Yam Improvement for Income and Food Security in West Africa (YIIFSWA), supported by a US$12 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will be led by IITA in collaboration with the governments of Ghana and Nigeria, the UK’s Natural Resources Institute (NRI), the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
The project will focus on increasing yields through better seed tuber supply and improving markets for this underground, edible tuber—some of which are as small as a fist, others as tall as a man.
About 7,000 years ago, yams were first domesticated by African farmers and today 48.1 million tons of the crop is produced annually across 4.4 million hectares of land in West Africa’s known as the “Yam Belt.” It extends from Cote D’Ivoire to Nigeria, accounting for over 90 percent of the global production.
Yams provide the most important source of dietary calories in Nigeria and Ghana. And for many people in the region, they rank above meat as a source of protein.
The project is aimed at addressing a variety of pests and diseases that have now depressed yields to a mere 14 percent of potential harvests. Scientists at IITA and the national researchers are already developing a host of new yam varieties that can address these challenges and are confident that with additional investments, there is tremendous potential to rapidly boost production and income from yam.
“Right now, most farmers cultivate yams mainly for household consumption, but if we can increase yields, while also improving marketing conditions, then many of these farmers should be able to earn a steady income from growing yams,” said IITA’s Director General Dr. Nteranya Sanginga.
“Yam prices have been rising in recent years because there is a strong demand for the crop in Africa, and even in places like Europe and the United States, where rapidly growing West African immigrant communities still have a big appetite for their traditionally preferred staple.”
The YIIFSWA project is a multifaceted five-year effort aimed at doubling the incomes of three million small-holder farming families. The initial focus of the project is on 200,000 smallholder farm families in Ghana and Nigeria—90 percent of whom cultivate less than two acres. Priority will be to ensure that affordable pest and disease-free seed yams are available to farmers, along with storage and handling technologies that can reduce post-harvest losses.
Yam breeders will develop and widely disseminate new, higher-yielding, disease-resistant varieties while private sector partners are expected to play a key role by providing certified seed and working closely with efforts to link small-holder farmers, particularly those in remote areas, to markets where a strong and steady demand for yams should allow them to realize the economic benefits of increased productivity under the stewardship of AGRA’s Farmer Organization Support Centre in Africa (FOSCA) program.
Indigenous crops In Africa like yams that are better adapted to soil and climate conditions often are referred to as orphan crops because, despite being vital staples for millions of people in West Africa, there are no major investments in improving yields, compared to major global “commodity” crops like maize, wheat and rice. Yam yields, therefore, fall below potential.
Successful efforts to boost yields are, therefore, likely to be more sustainable and have a greater impact on food security by enhancing the preferred crop staple with good untapped potentials. According to IITA studies in Nigeria, yam cultivation remains a lucrative enterprise. It was found that, with a potential rate of return of 78 percent, each dollar invested in yam research generates US$52 worth of additional food for the poor, relative to US$124 for all households.
This new project is coming at a critical time as over the last decade, yam productivity per hectare has been stagnant or declining in the Yam Belt due to a number of factors, and researchers warn that this trend, coming in the midst of rapid population growth, could be “catastrophic” without efforts to revive the crop.
Fungal diseases such as anthracnose that literally turns a field black, along with the yam beetle, nematodes, plant viruses, declining soil fertility and stresses caused by climate change are some of the most serious problems facing yam production in West Africa
There are also post-harvest diseases such as tuber rot that can claim up to 40 percent of a crop.
When these types of problems occur in mainstream crops like maize, rice or wheat, there is a vast global network of plant breeders available to develop new crop varieties that can withstand such stresses.
However, in West Africa today there are fewer than six yam breeders and fewer than 50 other researchers across the ECOWAS region limiting both the level of breeding and efforts to preserve its diversity.
IITA has the world’s largest collection of yam varieties and in 2010 it partnered with the Global Crop Diversity Trust and national researchers in the region in an effort to collect yams grown by farmers, some of whom still routinely domesticate wild tubers from the forests of Benin and Nigeria.
In the least 5 percent of yam germplasm is lost yearly, but new techniques needed required more funds.
Already, IITA has developed new varieties that yield 50 to 100 percent more than existing varieties that include improved yam varieties of which 19 were officially released in Nigeria and are yet to be massively multiplied for distribution to growers.
Targeting both the field and markets success
IITA yam project will not only be aimed at improving yield and outputs in the field but also bridge the missing market access for smallholder farmers. Majority of yams in the region are smallholder farmers but IITA research findings has shown that those benefiting from the domestic, regional and global market for yams are mainly medium to large-scale producers.
A combination of higher yields in the fields, reduced production costs through improved seed tuber supply, and better market access for smallholder growers will not only improve incomes for farmers, but also increase the affordability and consumption of yams in both rural and urban areas according to IITA.
“Yams are a very important crop to smallholder farmers in Africa, and if these farmers can grow more, and have better access to markets, it can make a real difference in their lives,” said Dr. Regina Kapinga, a program officer for the Agricultural Development initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Women will be actively engaged in this project, in part because they play an important role in yam production and marketing. We want to reach a stage where robust yam seed production techniques will use parts of the yam plant other than tubers, thereby releasing an additional 30 percent of the crop to food ware tubers.”
There are lucrative export opportunities to meet the demand of West Africans living abroad. Nigeria, for instance, exported US$27.7 million worth of yams to the USA in 2011.