Nigeria is missing out on yam wealth


NIGERIA’S perennial failure to leverage its natural advantages to create wealth and eliminate poverty was brought into sharp relief Tuesday. The Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development admitted that while the country remains the world’s largest producer of yam, it is missing on the list of exporters. The federal and state governments need to adopt effective policies to reverse this pathetic pattern of poverty amidst plenty.

A stakeholders’ workshop held in Abuja provided a forum for the reality check. The Permanent Secretary in the MARD, Ernest Umakhihe, in his message, said,“Nigeria is the leading producer of fresh yams, yet Nigeria is nowhere in the map of countries that export yams.” This typifies the incompetence of the country’s leadership at the national and sub-national levels in transforming natural endowment into wealth.

Production of yam worldwide rose from 15.3 million tonnes in 1971 to 74.82 million tonnes in 2020, growing at an annual average rate of 3.68 per cent, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation. Of this, Nigeria accounted for 50.1 million tonnes or 66.89 per cent. It is the most commonly harvested tuber crop in Nigeria after cassava, declares the National Bureau of Statistics, and fifth most harvested of any crop after cassava, maize, guinea corn, and beans/cow peas.

Nigeria leads in what is called the West African ‘Yam Belt’; it and four other countries in the sub-region – Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin Republic, and Togo – account for 94 per cent of global production. No other country even comes close to Nigeria; Ghana follows with between 10 and 12.7 per cent, trailed by Benin, Togo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, and Papua New Guinea.

The country’s comparative advantage is huge. NBS research shows that like cassava and maize, yam is grown in every part of the country. Benue, Taraba, Niger, Nasarawa, Kaduna, Cross River, Enugu, Oyo, Kogi, Ondo and Delta are the highest producing states.

Yam contributes to Nigeria’s food security, providing income to many and serving as a staple food for most of the population. As a cash crop, it engages millions in production, transportation, sale, and catering. It is used to make a variety of food for Africans and an increasing number of non-Africans around the world.

Wild yam also contains a chemical that can be made into various steroids through laboratory processing, including estrogens, according to, an online data service.

With its large diaspora, the export potential is enormous, but Nigeria is missing out as usual. Though a distant second largest producer, Ghana has become the world’s top exporter, said the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture; the Ghana Export Promotion Authority reported a record export of yam tubers worth $48 million in 2021, overtaking Jamaica that exported yams worth $39 million. Ghana contributed 94 per cent of all yam exports from West Africa in 2019, and 22 per cent of the global total.

Nigeria should get serious. The federal and state governments should roll out policies to promote greater production, processing, and exports of yam both in tubers and in processed form. In fairness, the Federal Government has initiated some programmes and in 2017 launched an ambitious plan to earn $5 billion annually from yam exports. The states are missing in action.

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They should take the lead to benefit from the global yam market that is projected to grow annually by 3.5 per cent 2020-2025 by Mordor Intelligence, a research company. It was the defunct four regions that drove the production and export of food and cash crops in the pre-independence and immediate post-independence era. Then, Nigeria maximised economic benefits from groundnuts and cotton (Northern Region), palm oil/palm kernels (Eastern Region), cocoa (Western Region), and palm oil, and rubber (Mid-West region).

Beginning with identifying the problems, the states and the central government should partner with private investors to drive increased production for local consumption and for exports. The Central Bank of Nigeria estimates Nigerians living abroad at 15 million, while demand for yam has been rising in Europe and the United States, and lately in China, whose 1.4 billion population offers a tantalising export market.

A report prepared for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation by Sahel Capital Partners and Advisory identified a “highly fragmented” yam value chain in Nigeria, dominated by small holders producing lower yields; inadequate improved seedlings, fertiliser, and crop protection products; and high incidence of diseases and invasive pests. Poor and insufficient storage facilities, as well as poor transportation infrastructure result in high post-harvest losses of over 30 per cent.

These problems should be tackled. States and local governments should invest heavily in rural infrastructure, roads, water supply and sanitation. Special attention should be paid to farm extension services, storage, and preservation, and to attracting investment.

Regulators like the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, and the Standards Organisation of Nigeria should be efficient in enforcing standards and quality to meet the requirements of export destinations. Novel financing intervention schemes like those that have stimulated rice and palm oil should be extended to yams, cassava, and maize.

The culture of neglecting natural resources while the majority wallow in poverty should end. Though it is the world’s largest cassava producer, Nigeria concedes the export market to others, led by Thailand that accounted for 85 per cent of global exports in 2021. Listed as the 13th largest producer of maize by the United States Department of Agriculture, Nigeria trails as the 30th largest maize exporting country.

Reversing this requires planning, well thought-out policies and dogged implementation by the central and state governments. The Federal Government’s 2017 yam export initiative has floundered; it should be reinvigorated. Ghana in 2013 launched, and has faithfully implemented a radical yam production and export stimulation programme, injecting a further $10 million in 2021.

Like Jamaica and Ghana, there should be closer collaboration between investors, producers,and trade associations. Packaging and standardisation are strong points of the two largest exporters; Nigeria’s policy makers, producers, regulators, and trade facilitators should adopt these and do even better. The yam resource should be exploited to the fullest to diversify export earnings and reduce poverty.


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