Initiative to Dramatically Boost Yam Productivity, Double Income of 3 Million Farmers in West Africa

April 9, 2012 by

The Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) announces a major initiative in West Africa to fight diseases that affect yams, an important source of protein in that region. Catholic Relief Services will be one of the implementing partners:

IBADAN, NIGERIA (2 APRIL 2012)—In one of the most ambitious efforts ever undertaken on behalf of an orphan crop like yam, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and a host of partners announced today a landmark new initiative to dramatically boost yam productivity and double the incomes of three million yam farmers in West Africa.

The Yam Improvement for Income and Food Security in West Africa (YIIFSWA) project, which is supported by a US$12 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will be led by IITA in collaboration with the governments of Ghana and Nigeria, the UK’s Natural Resources Institute (NRI), the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and Catholic Relief Services (CRS). The YIIFSWA project will focus on increasing yields through better seed tuber supply and improving markets for this underground, edible tuber—some of which are as small as a fist, others as tall as a man.

Yams were first domesticated by African farmers 7,000 years ago. Today, 48.1 million tons of yams are produced annually across 4.4 million hectares of land in West Africa’s “Yam Belt”—which extends from Cote D’Ivoire to Nigeria, representing over 90 percent of the global production.

Yams provide the most important source of dietary calories in Nigeria and Ghana. And for many people in the region, they rank above meat as a source of protein.

Yams are deeply tied to the lives, livelihoods and cultures in West Africa and among Africans in diasporas, yet their fate hangs in the balance as a variety of pests and diseases have now depressed yields to a mere 14 percent of potential harvests. But yam scientists at IITA and the national researchers are already developing a host of new yam varieties that can address these challenges and are confident that with additional investments, there is tremendous potential to rapidly boost production and income from yam.

“Right now, most farmers cultivate yams mainly for household consumption, but if we can increase yields, while also improving marketing conditions, then many of these farmers should be able to earn a steady income from growing yams,” said IITA’s Director General Dr. Nteranya Sanginga. “Yam prices have been rising in recent years because there is a strong demand for the crop in Africa, and even in places like Europe and the United States, where rapidly growing West African immigrant communities still have a big appetite for their traditionally preferred staple.”

The YIIFSWA project is an ambitious, multifaceted five-year effort with a vision of doubling the incomes of three million small-holder farming families. The initial focus of the project is on 200,000 smallholder farm families in Ghana and Nigeria—90 percent of whom cultivate less than two acres. A key priority is to ensure that affordable pest- and disease-free seed yams are available to farmers, along with storage and handling technologies that can reduce post-harvest loss. Yam breeders will develop and widely disseminate new, higher-yielding, disease-resistant varieties. The private sector partners are expected to play a key role by providing certified seed and working closely with efforts to link small-holder farmers, particularly those in remote areas, to markets where a strong and steady demand for yams should allow them to realize the economic benefits of increased productivity. This will be coordinated by AGRA’s Farmer Organization Support Centre in Africa (FOSCA) program.

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