Tony Sikpa: Commercializing yam in Ghana

Anthony Sikpa is the president of the Federation of the Associations of Ghanaian Exporters (FAGE). His group includes producers, exporters, and farmers. The federation currently has 13 associations with up to a couple of hundred members each. He also works with people in the horticulture sector producing vegetables, papaya, pineapple, and yam. He has been involved in organizing the group and doing advocacy work as president. He is an exporter of commodities such as cotton seed, cashew, coffee—both processed and raw materials, and other products.

How did you get involved in yam development?

Yam has been of interest to us and Ghana has been exporting yam for many years. So when the government approached IITA and ITC to help them develop a sector strategy for yam, it was interesting. Initially I was not involved because I did not handle yam but the association members asked me to lead them from the private sector angle. So I worked together with Dr Antonio Lopez (IITA) and Nelson (ITC), and we designed a participatory approach in crafting the strategy and in implementing and evaluating the whole process. This meant getting everybody in on one house: farmers, researchers, policy makers, exporters, traders, and financiers, under one roof. We talked, addressed issues, and came out with six broad objectives; how to improve the planting material, how the research and private sector will support the crop, how to help yam farmers in producing products using improved technologies, and how to market yam? Because we can’t just take anything into the market, we introduced ‘quality certification’ along the way to test the product.

The exercise was very useful. For the first time the misconceptions along the value chain were addressed. A farmer had the opportunity to ask scientists “why don’t you produce this type of material for me?” The approach really addressed the need of each person in the room.

For me, it helped to tell the public sector to create an environment for the private sector to lead and work with them.

Where are we going with the strategy?
This strategy is very important. The document provides a future road map, priorities and areas for investment/resource allocation, including milestones to assess the progress. The beauty of the strategy which makes me happy is that it is not dependent on one person to make it work. The farmers can go to the researchers to get the varieties. Fortunately we have IITA also to approach for new varieties. The exporter now clearly knows that he has work from the market; what the market requires and its standard. So he should prepare himself for the market.

We have used the strategy to position yam as an input for the industry. We should not just see yam as a food for the table. Yam can be used for different types of products including wine, in pharmaceuticals, etc. These are the ways we want to project yam so that we create a bigger demand for yam, and researchers would have to produce different varieties to suit the different needs of people. We will then be making yam as an industrial crop and create a bigger demand for it.

How are you involved with YIIFSWA?

I took advantage of the YIIFSWA meeting in Kumasi to go and tell them what we are doing in the yam sector and to also get their support for what we are doing. Maybe some of the products such as the new seeds and technology that would come out of the project could be made available to us in executing our strategy. I also told them about the gap that I saw: the emphasis on seed production was too much. We need to go beyond that into processes, coming out with new varieties for different uses. That is where they thought I could be useful and they invited me to join the technical advisory for the first time.

What are the lessons for other countries in Ghana’s experience of developing a yam sector strategy?

Others can learn from us. You cannot go into export without knowing which market you want. The export market has different strings; you need to look at the size of the market and use that to determine your production methods and even the varieties you want to produce. The variety that is in big demand is Pona. It has a very short shelf life and is delicate. You have to put all this into consideration when transporting it. You must package it well. The researchers need to take their time to study this. This project would help us to collaborate with, for example, our Nigerian brothers for us to be able to show them a few things we are doing that they can do. We know the way we use yam is different from the way they use yam. If they want to export yam, they need to go for smaller sizes for easy packaging because we measure in weight and not in hip or sizes.

What are the challenges in commercialization of yam?

The major challenge is in numbers and regularity. If you look at the trend in marketing now, in supermarkets they don’t want to buy small quantities because the supermarket has a chain, so you need to produce the volume required. If you can do this, you won’t have problem.

Aggregation. For instance you have so many farmers producing yam, you need someone to aggregate and make sure the quality is the same. The supermarket would not buy from you again if you get it wrong because they have a responsibility to their consumers to assure their safety. I will keep on saying certification. You cannot put any product in the European market without certification. They would look for international certification like the rainforest alliance as this would give them access to the international market. Another thing is transportation. You need to transport your product directly because if you don’t it will get cooked.

What is your vision for yam in Africa?

My vision for yam is to put it where potato is. Potato is everywhere. When people bring yam to town and package it into yam flour, then we’ll have done what this project is set out to do.

Would you have any advice to young farmers?

The young farmers should be happy and should grasp this opportunity of coming into agriculture now. It is a new learning. They should not be afraid of scientists; they should go to them with trust and patience.

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