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.