The professor also talks about yam seedlings, insurance and other factors affecting yam farmers.
The president of the Yam Farmers Association of Nigeria, who is also a professor of agriculture processing and storage at the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi, Simon Irtwange, believes Nigeria can become one of the world’s largest exporters of yam.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Oge Udegbunam, Mr Irtwange spoke on the problems facing the value chain and the possible solutions that will revive the sector.
PT: Yam is one of the locally cultivated staple foods produced in the country, how is the border closure affecting the market?
Irtwange: Well, yam is currently marketed within the country, even though there are indications that some of them are taken out to neighbouring countries like Togo and Ghana, but we don’t have data to show that it is exported in large quantities.
Basically, most of the yam that is planted here within the country it is also utilised in the country. So the border closure has nothing to do with the yam exportation.
There is also this belief that neighbouring countries come into Nigeria to buy yam, package it and export but it is not supported by data. When you compare it with rice, yam is not accepted in that way.
PT: Climate change is affecting the agricultural calendar in most countries, is it having any effect on yam production and how are you tackling the challenge?
Irtwange: Climate change does affect yam. We expect, for example, that our farmers start planting with the first rains around March or April. Usually after that first rain, because of climate change, the rains stop, then it comes with a lot of heat.
When you plant with that first rain, there is a tendency that the heat that comes with the first rains will burn up the seeds that are already cultivated in the soil. Because before cultivation, farmers think the rain will continue and then they get cooked and rotten.
You can imagine you have one hectare of land at the planting population of 10,000 yams per hectare. One seed yam is going for N80, so if you have planted your one hectare with 800,000 worth of seed yams and as a result of climate change, the seed yams get rotten in the soil. What that means is that you need to replace the seed yams, which will cost you another N800,000.
What we are advising farmers to do is to see how they can practice climate smart agriculture, in which case we have to wait for Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NiMET) to give predictions on the rainfall.
If farmers do not practice climate-smart agriculture, then the picture I painted to you will be the regular experience for Nigerian yam farmers. This will definitely affect production, so we are all encouraging our farmers to practice climate smart agriculture.
PT: How do you encourage farmers to practice climate-smart agriculture?
Irtwange: We have the National Association of Yam Farmers Producers and Processors; we get information from NiMET and then pass information to farmers through the association. There is a need for them to be cautious in not rushing to plant very early to avoid seeds getting rotten in the soil.
PT: The government formulated a policy for yam export. However, there had been complaints about the yam tubers export, why is this and what are all the parties doing to resolve it?
Irtwange: Usually, we are not complaining about the policy, what we are complaining about is the legislation that prohibits the export of yam. There is a legislation, 1989 Export Prohibition Act, that says we cannot export yams out of Nigeria, but there is a policy of the government that is encouraging export of yam and other non-oil exports.
For example, Nigeria Export Promotion Council is actively involved in promoting non-oil exports, yam inclusive. But then there is a legislation, 1989 Prohibition Act that prohibits yam, cassava and all their derivatives.
So what we are saying is that government policy cannot be encouraging something and the legislature is prohibiting it, so there is a need for that Act to be reviewed because it is not in line with government realities.
That is the only complaint we have so that we can do our job with a clean mind, even though yam is not one of the consolidation of the customs.
So the reason why we are still exporting is because if you look at the customs consolidation act, yam is not on the prohibited list of items to be exported. So because yam is not there, they will allow us to export but the 1989 Act remains a major constraint. Even if it cannot be amended but reviewed.
Now, rice is on the list of prohibited exports, it is understandable why rice is on the list of prohibited items for export. For yam, there is no reason it should be on the list. Ghanaians are making a lot of money from yam export. They purchase from Nigeria and export, why can’t the producers then make the money?
PT: Earlier you talked about not having the data for yam exported to other countries but is there any data for cultivated yam in the country?
Irtwange: I can tell you that our members have been exporting yams. We know what some of our members are doing; we have one who exports to the United Kingdom, we have another one in Jalingo who has been exporting to USA, but at the level of the association, we don’t have all the data of all our members because we don’t have that central data collection. We can assure you they are exporting.
The guy in Taraba, just this year, exported three containers already; that is 40 feet containers of 24 tonnes.
These things are not under the control of the association.
Some of our members export without the knowledge of the association. Just last year, I was told someone had exported 10 containers of yam. So there is no law that says before exportation, the association must give permission before exportation. It is at the level of government that they will have the real data of what is happening.
PT: What are the criteria yam should meet before they can be exported?
Irtwange: Well, there are standards required for yam before export, you must comply by the standards enumerated by the Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON). There are also quarantine requirements for yam, there are also visible requirements for export in terms of size, the weight, the shape and the texture of the yam. Usually, the yams to be exported must meet all the requirements of SON.
PT: Do you think Nigeria can maintain the policy on yam export?
Irtwange: Yes, because right now we have organised farmers into farming clusters. We have more than 300 farming clusters in Nigeria right now, and in each cluster we have about 50 farmers each cultivating more than one hectare of land. So these clusters are basically yam farming clusters. So basically, we have enough production to be able to supply Nigerians for food security, export and even processing.
PT : Usually farmers in the rural areas do not have access to quality seeds. As an association, how do farmers enjoy quality seedlings?
Irtwange: There are improved varieties that have gone through the seed system. There are seed yam companies right now: they are in Kaduna, Abuja, Lagos, Abia and Ebonyi. So right now there are five seed companies that are dealing with yam seeds. These companies supply our farmers at N80 per seed yam, but these are for improved seeds that are being supported by National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC) and International Institute For Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
But for the land resins, they are varieties that have not gone through improvement through scientific process. These land resins can only be propagated through the seeds of the previous year, so we are planning to see how in the future we can be able to replace these specie with improved seed yams that are now being developed through high ratio propagation technologies by these seeds companies supported by NASC and IITA.
PT: Losses are inevitable especially when nature is involved. As an association, do members benefit from any insurance scheme in case of any disaster?
Irtwange: No, we are yet to get to that level where we can involve insurance companies, where we can bring them in to insure our farms. Perhaps when we organise ourselves properly in this cluster thing we are talking about, some viable clusters can have discussions with the insurance company who can come in and see how their farms could be ensured.
For the Nigerian Agricultural Insurance Corporation (NAIC), we do not know anything about them, not even the services they offer. NAIC has failed to sensitise famers, even as the president of yam farmers association, I have never seen NAIC at events sensitising.
I was at an SME clinic where Vice President Yemi Osibanjo came to flag off the event, but NAIC was nowhere to be found. Bank of Agriculture was there, Bank of Industry was there, NAFDAC, Nigeria Export Promotion Council, NEXIM bank. They talked about how they can be accessed.
NAIC should work out in reaching out to farmers so we know what they offer and how we can benefit from them.