By Crusoe Osagie
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has said that the indifference exhibited by some African governments towards agricultural development could discourage philanthropic organisations from giving grants to their agricultural sectors.
The remark was made by the Foundation’s Global Development Officer and Programme Officer for Agricultural Development, Regina Kapinga, during the project launch of the Yam Improvement for Income and Food Security in West Africa (YIIFSWA) in Nigeria, funded by the Foundation with $12.2 million in grant.
Stressing the need for governments’ obligation to invest in agriculture, she said their interest in any agricultural project tends to underscore the importance of that project in the development and wellbeing of the people.
Governments’ interest would help attract the attention of relevant organisations that could be in the position of supporting such people-oriented developmental projects, she added.
Kapinga said that it was surprising to note that as important as the yam crop is to the economies and people of some African countries, “there is no major concern being shown by the governments to checkmate its steady decline”.
She stated that the Foundation, through the project, wants to achieve a reduction of costs along the value chain and also increase its production, and added that the YIISFSWA project seeks to ensure that farmers go beyond production for personal consumption to the level of commercial production.
In terms of impact Kapinga had this to say: “We don’t just want to see numbers and data, we want to see true stories depicting the impact of the programme to show that it is really changing lives, so importance should be placed on communication and strategy to reach out and achieve visible results.”
She said that through the initiatives of the project, farmers should be able to access quality seeds at affordable costs and also increase gender participation in the commercial production of yam.
According to her, women would be actively engaged in this project, in part because they play an important role in yam production and marketing.
She also said that the marketing component should be given consideration by increasing the number of entrepreneurs and also expanding the market from local to regional and international levels.
Throwing more light on the YIIFSWA project, the Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA, Dr. Nteranya Sanginga, said that the five-year project was one of the most ambitious efforts ever undertaken on behalf of an orphan crop like yam.
He said that the initial focus of the project was on 200,000 smallholder farm families in Ghana and Nigeria, 90 per cent of whom cultivate less than two acres, stressing that a key priority is 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 loss.
He said that the project would 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) through the Farmer Organisations Support Centre in Africa (FOSCA) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
He also informed that the YIIFSWA project would 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, while others are as tall as a man.
He remarked that yams were first domesticated by African farmers 7,000 years ago. Today, 48.1 million tonnes of yams are produced annually across 4.4 million hectares of land in West Africa’s ‘Yam Belt’, which extends from Cote d’Ivoire to Nigeria, representing over 90 per cent of the global production.
Sanginga stated that 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, adding that yams are deeply tied to the lives, livelihoods and cultures in West Africa and among Africans in the Diaspora.
He however noted that their fate hangs in the balance as a variety of pests and diseases have now depressed yields to a mere 14 per cent of potential harvests. But he said that yam scientists at IITA and the national researchers are already developing a host of new yam varieties that can address these challenges.
He stated that already, IITA has developed new varieties that yield 50 to 100 per cent more than existing varieties, among these improved yam varieties, 19 were officially released in Nigeria and are yet to be massively multiplied for distribution to growers.
He further stated that farmers in Southern Nigeria, who like others in the region, celebrate yams with elaborate and colourful annual festivals, have dubbed one of these varieties ‘the Wonder Yam’ due to its resistance to yam mosaic virus and yam badna virus.
“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 US, where rapidly growing West African immigrant communities still have a big appetite for their traditionally preferred staple.
“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 Sanginga.
Also speaking at the project launch, the Director and Chief Research Scientist of Crops Research Institute, Ghana, Mr. Hans Adu-Dapaah, noted that Ghana is second to Nigeria in yam production and exportation; stressing that the importance of yam in Ghana’s economy cannot be over-emphasised.
YIIFSWA Manager and Nigeria Coordinator, Dr. Norbert Maroya, said that in the next five years the project would stimulate increase in yam productivity (yield and net output) by 40 per cent for 200,000 small holder yam farmers in Ghana and Nigeria.
He also said that the project would deliver key global good research products that would contribute to the ten-year vision of doubling incomes from yams for three million small holder farming families who depend on the crop in West Africa.