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.

From yam production and postharvest constraints to opportunities

D.B. Mignouna,, T. Abdoulaye, A. Akinola, and A. Alene

Food insecurity remains a huge concern in West Africa. Agriculture, without doubt remains the main source of food and livelihood. Over the past two decades, agricultural yields have stayed the same or declined. Although there has been a recent rise in agricultural productivity, it derived more from expanded planting areas for staple crops than from yield increases. Thus, increasing and sustaining agricultural productivity should be a critical component of programs that seek to reduce poverty and attain food security in the region.

Yam (Dioscorea spp.), a vegetatively propagated crop cultivated for its underground edible tubers, is the mainstay for about 300 million people in West Africa. It is a very important food and income source for millions of producers, processors, and consumers in the region. About 48 million tons are produced annually in this subregion on 4 million ha. The five major yam-producing countries (Bénin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo) account for 93% of the world’s production, with Nigeria alone accounting for 68% of global production (36 million t on 3 million ha) with 31.8% of the population depending on yam for food and income security. The crop contributes substantially to the amount of protein in the diet, ranking as the third most important source, much more than the more widely grown cassava, and even higher than some sources of animal protein. Hence, yam is important for food security and income generation with a domestic retail price of US $0.49/kg. Yam is also integral to the sociocultural life in the subregion.

In present-day Nigeria, yam is still culturally significant because it plays an important role in betrothal ceremonies or traditional marriages. It is one of the significant items a suitor presents to his in-laws to obtain their approval to marry their daughter. Some grooms are compelled to present as many as 40 pieces of long and fat yam tubers, aside from gallons of palm oil, baskets of kola nuts, bags of salt, and other sundry items, the nonprovision of which could invalidate the union. The cultural importance of yam is higher in some regions in Nigeria as it is a crop celebrated annually during the New Yam Festival, with rituals to thank the god of agriculture, to seek its blessings for a bumper harvest in the forthcoming years. Yam is produced more in the middle belt zone of Nigeria and is consumed more in the South, but those making commercial gains from its sales are core northerners from the North West, the North Central, and the North East.

Despite its importance in the economy and lives of many people, the crop faces several constraints that significantly reduce its potential to support rural development and meet consumers’ needs for improved food security and enhanced livelihood. Constraints limiting yam production and postharvest handling need to be identified to provide a basis for appropriate interventions. This was the reason behind the interventions through the Yam Improvement for Income and Food Security in West Africa (YIIFSWA) project. YIIFSWA was initiated to work with other stakeholders in West Africa to identify the opportunities of interventions that could potentially help to increase productivity in the region. This report documents production and postharvest constraints and opportunities in yam.

Using Nigeria and Ghana as cases, important worldwide yam-producing countries, a study was carried out using a multistage, random sampling procedure in selecting a total of 800 and 600 households, respectively. All surveyed households were interviewed using a structured questionnaire.

Survey results indicated that a range of factors limited yam production and storage. These include insect pests, diseases, water-logging, drought, rodents, low soil fertility, shortage of staking material, inadequate input supply and storage facility, land shortage, high cost of labor, lack of improved varieties, and others such as theft (Fig. 1).

High cost of labor stands out as the most pressing problem in all the surveyed zones, both in Nigeria and Ghana. For instance, mounding as a seedbed preparation method, is laborious, and hence expensive. But apart from mound making all yam production operations are labor intensive because they are performed with hand hoes, machetes, and digging sticks without any form of a labor-saving technology.

Another main constraint are insect pests and diseases. The unavailability and high cost of good quality disease-free seed yam had been on one hand a result of pests and diseases and on the other hand a serious hidden constraint due to the fact that farmers do not purchase seed yam. Other important constraints mentioned were the inadequate input supply that was very pronounced in Ghana, low soil fertility more reported in Nigeria, rodents and drought (Ghana), water-logging (Nigeria), lack of improved varieties more prominent in Ghana, shortage of land and staking material (Ghana), and others such as theft that were not negligible in both countries.

It is clear that there are shared priority constraints in the two countries, indicating no specificity of problems by country. The YIIFSWA research agenda needs to be informed by the constraints facing yam farmers and based on these the following interventions were identified: (i) Key investments for lowering farmers’ production cost using agricultural research (breeding, agronomy) and extension (improved agronomic and management practices; and (ii) Managing pests and diseases.

As regards opportunities, yam could be be a formidable force in the fight against poverty, hunger, and deadly diseases if research and development measures are implemented to develop and disseminate technologies that can bring the crop into central focus in national food policies. This will enable it to benefit from policy programs that can drive down production costs. Yam is a preferred food in the region; some varieties, especially yellow varieties, are sources of betacarotene. The crop is produced mostly for sale, and it is increasingly becoming a major source of foreign exchange in the region as an export crop.

Therefore, YIIFSWA, through its initiatives, should ensure that all constraints are turned into opportunities for all the yam value chain players in general and farmers in particular.

A new paradigm for improving yam systems

N. Maroya, R. Asiedu, P. Lava-Kumar, D. Mignouna, T. Abdoulaye, B. Aighewi, M. Balogun, U. Kleih, D. Phillips, A. Lopez-Montes, F. Ndiame, J. Ikeorgu, E. Otoo, N. McNamara; S. Abimiku, Sara Alexander, and R. Asuboah

In West Africa, yam (Dioscorea spp.) plays a very important role as a source of income, food security, and livelihood systems for at least 60 million people. The crop also makes a substantial contribution to protein in the diet, ranking as the third most important source. Farmers engage in yam cultivation for cash income and household food supply. Yam traditionally plays a significant role in societal rituals such as marriage ceremonies and annual festivals, making the crop a measure of wealth. Yams therefore have significance over and above other crops in the region. At the regional level, yam seems to be a superior economic good in all countries. As incomes increase, consumers shift from cassava to yam. This is related in part to regional cultural values and consumer preferences, which is mainly due to the relative ease in consumer food preparation.

Despite its importance in the economy and lives of many people, yam faces many constraints that significantly reduce its potential to support rural development and meet consumers’ needs as an affordable nutritional product. Unavailability and high cost of high quality disease-free seed yam is a major constraint in West Africa. This is followed by high levels of on-farm losses of tubers during harvesting and storage, low soil fertility, and high labor costs associated with land preparation and staking. Other constraints include losses due to diseases caused by viruses and fungi and nematode attack. Scale insects, tuber beetles, and termites affect the tubers in some areas. These effects are experienced more in the dry savannah agroecologies where yam cultivation is rapidly expanding due to the shrinking arable land in the traditional moist humid areas. In addition, the seed yam system in West Africa is mainly informal and entirely market driven.

Yam Improvement for Income and Food Security in West Africa (YIIFSWA) was initiated to increase yam productivity of 200,000 smallholder farmers (90% with less than 2 acres) in Ghana and Nigeria by 40% (2011 to 2016), and deliver key global goods research products that will contribute to the sustainable development of the yam sector.

Early gains

The project started by identifying yam production systems with partners (Fig. 1).

The yam value chain surveys with farmers, marketers (including exporters), transporters, and processors helped to estimate the cost of production of ware and seed yam, analyze costs and benefits of yam transaction, and identify major ware yam supply and distribution routes in both Nigeria and Ghana. Detailed value chain analysis has shown that yam production is a profitable business and yam farmers are able to generate substantial income from the production of tubers. But at the same time, production costs tend to be high (in particular for seed yam and hired labor) and selling prices depend on the season. There is significant price variability between the new yam season (August to October), the peak season (November to April), and the slack season (May to July). During peak seasons there is much yam in the markets but because of unavailability of good storage facilities, yam are sold at the lowest prices (Fig. 3). The gross margins can be negative if farmers get the timing of their harvest wrong, or are unable to sell at times when prices are higher.

YIIFSWA baseline studies conducted in 600 and 800 households, respectively in Ghana and Nigeria, indicated that only 3% and 10% households are headed by females in Nigeria and Ghana. Land was by far the major natural capital for small-holder farmers in yam-growing areas. The average farmland available was about 2.4 ha in Nigeria and 2.7 ha in Ghana. Priority has been given by households to yam over other food and cash crops. The areas under yam cultivation are generally small and the primary objective of small-holder farmers is to meet subsistence needs.

To develop the capacity of farmers organizations (FOs) by linking them to service providers (SPs) that would offer demand-driven services, a profiling exercise was conducted on 77 and 44 FOs and 40 and 17 SPs in Nigeria and Ghana, respectively. Overall, the performance indicators revealed that the selected FOs in Nigeria performed better than the ones in Ghana, in terms of quality of governance, internal management, value chain management, and marketing strategy. However the selected Nigerian FOs performed poorly, compared to Ghana counterparts, in the internal management and operations indicators.

Over 90% of the farmers use tubers harvested from the previous season as ‘seed yam’ or sourced from local markets, which are of poor quality due to pest and disease attack and lack of seed yam replacement. To improve the quality of farmer-saved seed yam, two NGOs—the Missionary Sister for Holy Rosary (MSHR) in Nigeria and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Ghana—have taken on the responsibility to train yam growers on seed yam multiplication using minisett technique combined with seed treatment to protect them from nematodes and fungal attack. So far, about 16,784 farmers were trained in Nigeria and Ghana.

The seed and ware yam sanitation challenges were also tackled. Surveys were conducted to identify pest and disease prevalence to establish appropriate strategies to control biotic threats to seed yam and ware yam. Virus diagnostics has been simplified to detect major yam-infecting viruses, Yam mosaic virus (YMV), Yam mild mosaic virus (YMMV), and Cucumber mosaic virus (genus, Cucumovirus), through a multiplex PCR-based assay.

Breeder seed yams produced in 2012 by Crops Research Institute (CRI) in Ghana and National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) in Nigeria were handed over respectively to the Grain and Legume Development Board (GLDB, Ghana) and National Agricultural Seeds Council (NASC, Nigeria) for generation of foundation seed yam.

The breeder seed yam under production in 2013 is 0.8 ha and 0.5 ha, respectively for Nigeria and Ghana. GLDB has taken the challenge in Ghana and has a 1.5-ha foundation seed production site at Afraku (Ashanti region); while in Nigeria NASC selected two private seed companies (Greengold Construct Nigeria Ltd. and Romarey Ventures Nigeria Ltd.) that were engaged in foundation seed yam production for the first time.

New techniques such as aeroponics and temporary immersion bioreactors systems (TIBS) were effectively established at Ibadan. Results of experiments on the use of aeroponics system were encouraging for both pre-rooted planted and direct planting of vine cuttings of D. rotundata and D. alata. The successful growth of yam on the aeroponics system is reported for the first time with production of microtubers and mini-bulbils.

The TIBS is reported on yam in general, and in only one article for D. rotundata. YIIFSWA established a TIBS running on automated computer system with remote control through Internet. The 128 units of TIBs can produce a minimum of 12,800 plantlets per cycle. The running of the TIBs and the aeroponics systems for breeder or foundation seed yam production will speed up the generation of initial stocks of seed yam to supply the formal seed system.

Integrating available technologies, local and improved varieties to increase yam productivity is also another key objective of the project. Improved varieties with good performance in low soil fertility and drought stressed environments, and in staked and no staked system have been identified (table). The integration of landraces with seed selection and treatment, effective weed control, fertilizer application under no-stake system has indicated yields of 50% above the local technology. Studies have also determined that choice of yam varieties could be same for both men and women farmers and sometimes preferences differ.

For an effective operational seed system the capacity building of the players is key. To that effect national training workshops were organized: breeder and foundation seed production training workshop in Ghana and Nigeria; seed yam quality management protocol (QMP), yam virus disease diagnostics. In addition many partners (NASC, GLDB, CRI; SARI, CRS, MSHR, etc.) have organized training workshops for different stakeholders mainly on minisett technique for yam propagation.


In 24 months of project implementation, significant results were achieved on baseline studies, value chain analysis, farmers’ organization profiling, farmers training, and participatory selection of new genotypes. New techniques on high ratio propagation (aeroponics and TIBS), novel methods to develop virus-free planting materials, and the multiplex RT-PCR test for simultaneous detection of major viruses infecting yam, were successfully established. The formal seed yam system has been initiated and training have started. These initial successes are expected to pave a way to tackle greater challenges confronting the seed yam sector in West Africa.