Nigeria is attempting to diversify its oil-dependent economy by increasing its exportation of yams, following a global fall in oil prices that has affected the West African nation, according to the BBC.
Yams are fibrous, starchy tubers grown in the ground, with tough brown skin and a varying colour of flesh, and are a staple food in temperate and sub-tropical regions such as Africa and the Caribbean.
The UN’s food agency says that Nigeria produces over 60% of the world’s yams, but is not a top global exporter of the tuber.
Ghana produces far less than Nigeria but exports more to European countries like the UK.
Nigeria has now launched a yam export scheme which aims to compete with its own oil exports, in the hope of accessing a potentially big market, with Europe and the US the main focus of the programme, and providing jobs in agriculture to young people in particular.
Oil exports account for more than 70% of Nigeria’s government revenues, but a fall in global oil prices in the last few years has led to the worst recession in a quarter of a century in the country.
Nigeria’s situation has become so desperate that government employees have gone unpaid and developmental projects and social amenities have been put on hold.
Despite being a government programme, the private sector is driving the yam export initiative, with the state only responsible for obtaining inter-governmental trade agreements with importing countries.
Funding continues to be a problem for yam farmers, with the high cost of preserving and transporting yams abroad cutting into profits.
It costs over US$10,000 to ship 30 tonnes of yams to the US, and slow transportation – about 40 days by sea between Nigeria and the US – means some yams rot before reaching their destination and add to the overall cost.
More than 30% of Nigerian yams rot each year due to poor preservation, as the country lacks good storage facilities and modern transportation systems.
Since the launch of the scheme in June 2017, only 200 tonnes of yams of the 60 million tonnes produced annually has reached Europe and the US.
Farmers have asked the government to encourage banks to fund yam exportation and to liaise with freight companies to offer acceptable prices, as well as assisting with the purchasing of tractors, herbicides, insecticides and fertilisers.
There have been concerns that a greater international demand could inflate domestic prices of yams, disadvantaging the poorest who most rely on this staple food.
Critics say an opportunity is also being lost to process yams locally, which would cut production costs considerably.
Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh, however, says that the cost of setting up a yam flour processing factory, with its requirements for full grade stainless steel, is not currently viable.
For now, he says, raw yam exportation is the best course of action, until a time when economic factors such as electricity and interest rates become more repayable.
Analysts say that exports could positively impact Nigeria’s economy, provided the government offers sufficient resources and support to producers.