Research Breakthrough Promising More of Pounded Yam

By 'Niyi Egbe

Have you heard the news? The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan has announced a new approach to propagating yam. According to a heart warming news from the foremost agricultural research institute, it is now possible to propagate yams, scientifically named Discorea species, from the vines instead of the traditional use of parts of the tuber cuttings.

The nascent approach to the propagation is almost too good to be believed, holding great socio-economic implications for several farmers in Africa and other parts of the developing world where yams are cultivated. Yams come in different species, popular among them are Discorea rotundata (white yam), Discorea cayenisis (yellow yam), Discorea alata (water yam).

It is a truimph of painstaking research into a truly popular tuber crop. The importance of the crop has had it attract research in far flung areas as pest and disease control, breeding for enhanced yield, storage, processing, cultivation etc.

Expectedly, earlier research into alternatives to the propagation of yams merited deserved scientific attention. The reason is quite simple. Yam propagation has the uncomfortable request of needing between ten and fifteen percent of the tubers as planting materials if the next harvest is to be possible. This is quite expensive for the farmer as it diminishes the quantity of yam left available for food or cash.

It is commendable that IITA and some other local agricultural research institutions and departments of agriculture of Nigerian Universities had been part of earlier efforts at scientifically reducing wholescale use of parts of the stem tubers as planting materials. A major earlier achievement in yam propagation was the evolvement of yam minisett technology. The drawback of the minisett technology was that it still involved the use of tubers, but then, not in as high proportion as the traditional one. 

Cultivation of yam is quite popular, having pan cultural acceptance among millions of farmers in Africa and the humid tropics, featuring prominently in the foods, diets and cultures of the populace of these areas. These areas are aptly deemed underdeveloped, in housing some of the world's resource poor people. Characteristically, their per capita incomes are low, the people lack advances in development as infrastructural facilities are poor even where they are available, the level of living is below globally accepted benchmarks, food availability is abysymal and the wellbeing quite poor.

Yams notably feature in several socio - cultural activities of rural communes, some of them taking it to religious extremes in deifying them, deeming yam "food of the gods". In some communities, harvesting of yam is never done until the gods have had their fill or appeased enough to ensure better harvests in the future !

Statistics from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations unfold that 48.7 million tonnes of yams were cultivated world wide in 2005. The cultivation is so popular in sub- Saharan Africa, that 97 percent of the figure, about 47.24 million tonnes, were cultivated within the region that year.

People relish the assorted delicacies possible from yam , eating them cooked, roasted, fried or pounded. Most cultures hardly have reservations against Yam production and consumption. They are produced as both food and cash crops. Millions of farmers across these regions derive their economic well being and livelihood from the crop.

Regrettably, despite the huge potentials in yam to lift farmers from socio-economic quagmire, there are lots of constraints in its cultivation. The production demands much dudgery, featuring poor cultivation practices, unaffordable input costs for procuring yam seeds, farm tools, fertilisers, herbicides, harvesting, transportation, staking, storage, pest and disease control, all which combine to reduce whatever profitability to rubbles.

Also, it has been practically challenging to mechanise aspects of yam cultivation as planting, staking and harvesting. The difficulty in infusing advances in technology to yam cultivation implies that farmers have to apply labour to production activities which renders the enterprise more expensive especially in the face of unavailable farm hands. This apart, farm machinery are hardly available for farmers and are usually simply priced beyond reach. 

Undoubtedly, an understanding of the importance of yam in the lives of these people, must have motivated the research into increased availability of yam via reducing the proportion of the stem tubers that would have to be recycled.

Considering the already discouraging demands in the cultivation of yam, the achievement of the gallant team of ITTA's Yam Physiologist and Project leader , Dr Hidehiko Kikuno, in collaboration with the Japanese government, the Sasakawa Africa Association, Tokyo University of Agriculture and the International Cooperation Center for Agricultural Education, Nagoya University, Japan, other Nigerian agencies and scientists is indeed praise worthy.

Such cooperation is welcome. It is particularly noteworthy that the sponsorship is coming from Donor Advanced governments and International Aid Agencies. It is beyond traditional donation of mockery pittance deemed aid rather than substance.

As a professional agriculturist and farmer's son, I personally appreciate the wonderful scientific initiative of the team. I must reveal that I had to be convinced and could hardly believe that yam propagations will be possible through the vines rather than stem tubers, but what isn't possible in scientific discoveries?

It is also gladdening that the new technology is affordable and non-complicated. This is the right direction if research is to be relevant and adaptive. Farmers, their families and farming communities are now assured of enhanced profitability from the yam production enterprise.

The Nigerian government and others would be doing well should they disceminate the technology early enough to save farmers from needless pain. Kudos, scientists!


'Niyi Egbe, a Lagos based Agriculturist and Media Practitioner