Mobilizing yam farmers in Ghana and Nigeria to produce good quality seed yam

Beatrice Aighewi,

The availability and quality of seed determine the success of any farmer and this has been an issue because the seed sector is poorly developed in many African countries. The challenges that result from poor seed are particularly serious with regard to vegetatively propagated crops such as yam. Several reasons are responsible for this situation: the resultant unavailability and poor quality of seed yams is compounded by the following reasons:

· Seed yam is mostly produced by traditional methods which are relatively slow.

· The high cost of seed yam causes most farmers to rely mainly on seed tubers saved from previous harvests.

· Lack of quality control and absence of formal seed yam production systems result in scarcity of genetically uniform and disease-free seed in markets.

· Poor understanding of the quality attributes of seed yam entrenches poor quality.

· Lack of capacity/knowledge on rapid multiplication methods to obtain clean planting material.

In trying to improve the current situation of seed yams, the Yam Improvement for Income and Food Security in West Africa (YIIFSWA) project is placing emphasis on improving the quality of seed yam on farmers’ fields and initiating the development of a formal seed yam system since ensuring quality is a hallmark of any formal seed system.

In most yam-producing systems in West Africa, seed yam production is not separated from ware yam production. Traditionally, a farmer plants setts to produce ware yams and in the process obtains seed by double harvest (milking), cutting some large tubers or using those that are too small for food. Due to the low rate of multiplication, the seed produced is rarely enough in quantity for expansion of yam cultivation and because the same seed is recycled over many generations, a build-up of disease on seed tubers reduces the productivity. In many seed yam markets, it is the left-over seed after the farmer has planted his field that is sold, and chances are high that the quality of such seed will be poor (Fig. 1) because a farmer will normally reserve the best to plant in his field).

The only region where relatively good quality seed yam is found in market is in parts of the River Niger area of Nigeria, particularly at Illushi and Otuocha Markets, where there are farmers who specialize in seed yam production. Seed yam in the market is sorted by size and variety and they look good in terms of quality (Fig. 2). Discussions with yam farmers in Nigeria and Ghana revealed that for most of them, the only reason why good seed yam is sold is if they are faced with a financial crisis and need immediate cash. Seed yam which is an inheritance for most farmers is a major component of their financial and food security, and in some instances anyone who takes seed yam to the market to sell is considered a thief. In Salaga District of Ghana, no seed yam is sold at any market; it can only be bought from a farmer on his farm.

Observations at Illushi market shows that even without the formal seed system, farmers can produce better quality seed if they are enlightened and specialize in seed yam production. If such seed yam markets could be developed in major yam-producing areas, most of the problems associated with unavailability and poor quality will be sorted out.

To improve the quality of seed yams on farmers’ fields and develop the seed yam market, YIIFSWA has targeted the small-holder farmer who forms the majority of producers. A multidisciplinary YIIFSWA team uses the platform of cross-objective workshops and capacity building to train farmers in some communities of major yam-producing regions of Nigeria and Ghana to produce and market good quality seed yam (Figs. 3 and 4). Many of the farmers trained belong to farmers’ groups that have already had some training on producing seed yams from minisetts on demonstration plots in their localities. Some of those who participated in previous training exercises had an opportunity to explain to other farmers what they had learned and encouraged other farmers to try the minisett technique to produce their seed yam, and remove barriers that have prevented them from getting more seed.

YIIFSWA also provided training for extension agents on high ratio propagation methods—minisett technique and use of vine cuttings which can produce more tubers of better quality than what farmers are currently producing (Fig. 5). It is expected that they will train farmers in their areas of operation, and sustain the campaign for production of better quality seed yam.