While we urgently need to address the inefficiencies in Nigeria’s yam value chain to support the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers and provide more affordable food to the country, it is essential to look beyond food security and apply a food sovereignty lens.
The yam harvest season is upon us.
‘Have you seen the price of poundo yam? I will like eba by force,’ a friend told me a few months ago.
Nigerians are currently going through a tumultuous economic period, with inflation reaching a 17-year high of 20.52 per cent in August 2022. Across various socioeconomic strata, Nigerians are adjusting their consumption, sacrificing some of their wants and prioritizing need in response to the new economic reality. In this gloomy period, where there seems to be no end to the increasing prices of goods and services in sight, the yam harvest season arrived like a beacon of hope, with prices of yam in Lagos decreasing from N2,500 to N800 per large-sized tuber in the past few weeks.
Yam, a crop indigenous to West Africa, is deeply rooted in the socio-cultural fabric of most Nigerian communities.
The beginning of the yam harvest season is marked by ‘new’ yam festival celebrations across different regions in the country. With annual yam production of about 50 million tonnes making 70 per cent of global yam production, and valued at $13.6 billion, yam is central to conversations around food security in Nigeria.
In Nigeria, production of yam—which is commonly prepared into several dishes such as boiled yam, fried yam, roasted yam, amala (made from yam flour) and pounded yam—is exclusively carried out by low-income smallholder farmers in rural areas across the country. Despite the large yam market in Nigeria and its socio-cultural significance, the yam value chain—from farm to market—is rife with challenges. These challenges, combined with the current economic conditions across the country, threaten to further impoverish yam farmers in rural areas and push yam prices further beyond the reach of the average Nigerian.
CHALLENGES IN THE YAM VALUE CHAIN
The major constraint to yam farming in Nigeria is the high cost of production, with some prevailing practices—from favouring mounding over the more mechanized ridging method of land preparation to a laborious manual harvesting process—deemed to be inefficient by experts. Extensive field research carried out in 2014 found that smallholder yam farmers in Nigeria typically have a margin just under 10 per cent, and given today’s economic conditions, current margins likely do not fare any better. To fully appreciate the inadequacy of this meagre profit margin, here’s a description from agricultural economist, Felix Nweke’s, book Yam in West Africa: Food, Money and More, of the extensive process yam farming involves:
The process begins with land preparation, which involves clearing and mound-making before commencement of steady rains. After, seed yam planting and mulching (covering the seed yams with suitable material to control weeds, retain soil moisture and maintain soil nutrients) is carried out. This is followed the most labour-intensive aspect of yam farming, staking, which involves elevating creeping vines above the ground level with wood stakes. After these arduous processes, weeding is frequently carried out before harvesting, which is delicately carried out using small hand hoes to prevent damage to the yam tubers.
This situation is in stark contrast to maize and cassava farming, which, although are less labour intensive than yam farming, typically provide farmers with margins of 30 – 50 per cent. Although yam farming has historically received much less attention than other staple crops such as maize, cassava and rice from the heavyweights in the agricultural space, several stakeholders have committed considerable funding to boost ‘productivity’ of yam farming in Nigeria in the past two decades.
Across the process of yam farming, most smallholder farmers in Nigeria continue to show a dogmatic adherence to traditional production methods, sometimes at the expense of ‘improved productivity’—measured simply by the number of yams produced per hectare of land. This adherence was once reductively referred to as ‘the problem of superstitious and ritual practices in yam farming in West Africa’ by agricultural economist Nweke.
Meanwhile, hidden costs in food production such as social, environmental and health costs are typically missing from conversations about agricultural productivity in Africa. While we urgently need to address the inefficiencies in Nigeria’s yam value chain to support the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers and provide more affordable food to the country, it is essential to look beyond food security and apply a food sovereignty lens. Food sovereignty emphasizes ecologically appropriate production and the empowerment of local food systems to achieve sustainable food security.
POUND FOR POUND: ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL TRADE-OFFS IN YAM FARMING
In traditional systems, yam has a low multiplication rate: one seed yam tuber can only generate up to five yam tubers (1:5), compared to cassava which yields up to 10 stem cuttings from one stem cutting (1:10) and maize which yields up to 300 seeds per cob (1:300). As such, yam farmers in Nigeria traditionally use up to 30 per cent of yam produced in one harvest season as seed yam for the next planting season. As a result, seed yam accounts for 40-50 per cent of yam production cost and represents the single largest driver of yam production costs.
For instance, the Yam Improvement for Income and Food Security in West Africa, Phase II (YIIFSWA II) is a $12 million project aiming to ‘develop a commercial seed yam system in Nigeria to benefit smallholder farmers’. Food security, as a concept, is concerned with the availability of food and individuals’ ability to access it. However, unlike food sovereignty, food security does not distinguish where food comes from, or the conditions under which it is produced and distributed. To achieve its aims, the YIIFSWA II project engaged with eight private seed companies to deploy certified, high-quality seed yam to smallholder farmers. While the project reportedly engaged with seven local companies and one foreign company, it is important to remain cognizant of the dangers of creating a dependence on international food supply chains for the cultivation of an indigenous crop such as yam.
In 2005, Malawi launched an input subsidy programme in partnership with a multinational corporation to distribute patented hybrid maize seeds to smallholder farmers, which eventually led to some displacement of local varieties without evidence of significantly higher productivity of the patented seeds. Although local varieties were reported to yield around 1.4 tonnes/ha while the patented hybrid varieties yield around 1.6 tonnes/ha, farmers were incentivized to use hybrid seeds due to government providing higher discounts on these seeds.
In response to this, David Mkwambisi, a professor of environmental sustainability at Malawi’s Bunda College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, stated that ‘the private sector has benefited more than small farmers have from the subsidy program’. Similarly, Blessings Chinsinga, a professor of political economy at Malawi’s Chancellor College in Zomba, said ‘I call it forced adoption, and the test will come when the subsidy is finished. If adoption continues, the seed companies can thank the government subsidy program.’
While an improved seed yam system is key to reducing yam production costs, it is also essential to protect the sovereignty of yam farming. By extension, such protection would ensure that the Nigerian food system’s potentially lucrative seed yam market does not come to be dominated by global seed giants in the future.
One the major advancements in yam farming in the last 50 years has been the introduction of the yam minisett technique, which involves cutting up a yam tuber into many small pieces to enable production of up to 20 yams from one seed yam. Despite the potential for efficiency, adoption of this practice in Nigeria remains low mainly due to the long preparation period and incompatibility with farmers’ prevailing farming systems. Majority of yam farming in Nigeria is intercropped. i.e., yam is typically grown together with other crops, which promotes climate resilience through higher plant resource efficiency and natural suppression of pests. The yam minisett technique, however, was developed to best fit the monocropping system, which degrades soil fertility and leads to loss of biodiversity. Moreover, since cut pieces of yam are more susceptible to pest attacks due to their dry surfaces, a requirement of the minisett technique is treating the pieces with a pesticide solution containing insecticide and fungicide.
The most commonly used insecticide for the yam minisett technique in Nigeria is chlorpyrifos, an insecticide that was banned from use on food crops in the United States in August 2021 and European Union and United Kingdom earlier, due to adverse health effects in humans, including developmental disorders and autoimmune disorders. In addition, farmers in Nigeria typically use organic material such as leaves or soyabean straw, as mulching material during the yam cultivation process, perhaps due to lower cost and ease of availability. Alternatively, several agricultural researchers have recommended the use of plastic mulching material, which, unlike leaves, is non-biodegradable and contributes to environmental pollution. This recommendation—which tries to achieve better control of soil moisture and protection from pest attacks—is rooted in the prevailing food security lens and does not adequately account for the ecological consequences. International farmer organization, La Via Campesina, estimates that global warming could cause a 10-20 per cent reduction in Africa’s overall food production by 2050. Meanwhile, the yam cultivation process, as described earlier, is intricately planned around predictable rainfall patterns. Unfortunately, increasingly irregular rainfall patterns in the face of climate change are already making production of yam, and other staple crops, more difficult in Nigeria. ‘Climate change is the first challenge,’ a smallholder yam farmer told The Guardian last month. ‘We have not been having regular rain as expected.’
Applying a food sovereignty lens implores us to factor the human health and environmental impacts of any innovations and modern yam farming practices into cost-benefit analyses. It also requires that we reassess what ‘productive’ entails.
WHAT COULD THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE?
Given increasing interest in African agricultural markets from transnational corporations and private investors coupled with the aforementioned annual production value of yam, it is time to resist capitalist food production systems which prioritize profitability over local sovereignty and long-term ecological wellbeing.
The tuber of yam sold at Zaki Biam market for N100 will typically be transported to markets in urban areas such as Lagos, via several middlemen, brokers and wholesalers, to be eventually sold at N600-1,500 to consumers depending on the time of the year. Better linkages between farms and yam markets could increase farmers’ margins by reducing the need for middlemen and aggregators who currently earn more than farmers for transporting their produce to markets. To mitigate the economic trade-off required to continue sustainable yam farming at a high production cost, the government and other relevant stakeholders could consider increasing farmers’ income from yam production by encouraging the adoption of on-farm value-adding activities such as yam flour processing and provision of proper storage facilities to reduce post-harvest losses.
In 2013, Ghana became the first country in the world to launch a national yam strategy, with its long term goal ‘to contribute to improved livelihoods of farming communities by implementing interventions that consider economic and social issues’. Although the strategy leaves a lot to be desired from a food sovereignty standpoint—with its emphasis on commercialization for the export market and limited coverage of climate change and indigenous production systems—it highlights the high political prioritization of yam farming in Ghana.
Nigeria, however, does not have a national yam strategy. However, such a strategy could be a first step towards mobilizing key stakeholders to promote long-term food sovereignty by ensuring sustainable development of the yam farming system. To achieve this, it is essential to situate any potential strategy within the context of yam’s socio-cultural significance in Nigeria, thereby placing the interests of current and future generations of yam farming communities at such a strategy’s core⎈
The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].