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Yam Export? Here is a better alternative for our economy by Ndidi Uche Samuel


On May 30, 2017, the Nigerian Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh, announced that Nigeria will export 70 metric tons of yam to the US, UK and China. According to the minister, the first container of yams was to leave Nigeria on June 29, 2017. It is believed that the purpose is to reduce dependence on oil and increase income from the agricultural sector. Unfortunately, in a news report published by many online and offline news media in Nigeria, on October 4, 2017, Audu Ogbeh, Minister of Agriculture, announced that the US rejected yam exports from Nigeria because of their poor quality. Invariably, we did not eat and we did not sell.
Here there are many questions that are profusely wailing for answers.

  1. Do we have enough yams for local consumption?
  2. Would it not be much better to boost local production, satiate the Nigerian market with it before we consider exporting the product?
  3. Will the exportation of raw yam truly impact the Nigerian economy and wean our dependence on oil?

Yam Production in Nigeria
Nigeria is the largest yam producer in the world, contributing to two-thirds of global yam production each year. According to the Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), yam is the fifth most widely harvested crop in Nigeria (following cassava, maize, guinea corn/sorghum, and beans/cowpeas); and, after cassava, the most commonly harvested tuber crop. However, Living Standards Measurement Study – Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA) data show only 43 percent of households harvesting yam sell any share of the production. The LSMS-ISA data indicate also that approximately 45 percent of harvested yam seed is saved for the next planting season. Indeed from all indications, Nigeria, notwithstanding her position as the world largest yam producer, still does not have enough for local consumption thereby making the staple expensive for the common man. Reports have shown that the major challenges facing the yam farmer are cost of yam seeds and the limited supply of the seeds among other things.
Therefore, the need to first boost local production cannot be overemphasized since buying off local stock for export will increase scarcity in the local market and shoot up price of the staple beyond the reach of low income earners. Unfortunately, the minister even went further to fritter away scarce resources in a promotion over the proposed export to boost government image without adequate ground work on increasing production beyond local requirement and without doing the basic job of selecting yam with the right quality and treatment of exportable stock.
The Challenges
In exporting yam, we must not forget the cost of treatment, packaging and freighting, and perhaps other costs that are not enumerated here all of which run into millions of dollars.
Furthermore, beside boosting local yam production, will the export of yam produce in the short and long term reduce our huge dependence on OIL? Can we as a nation, wean ourselves of our absolute dependence on oil by simply exporting raw yam or any other staple crop? The answer is a resounding no.
Indeed even the fact that we only export crude oil is partly why we are having challenges funding our budget. The Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, just announced that 60% of our capital votes will be rolled over into 2018.
Venezuela is the world’s 10th richest country in terms of natural resources. Oil and gas are her major natural resource. Yet it is currently undergoing its worst economic hardship in history with biting recession. DR Congo is arguably Africa’s richest country with regards to natural resources, yet it is one of the poorest countries in the world. Côte D’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer of cocoa (West Africa collectively supplies two thirds of the world’s cocoa crop), yet the world’s largest chocolate (made from cocoa) company is Cadbury, a British company followed by Hershey (US) and Nestle (Switzerland). These companies generate over 5 times what Côte D’Ivoire generates thereby making their nations’ economy much better.
The Better Route
There is no doubt that Nigeria can do better with her yam than simply exporting the raw staple. Much better. Yam can be processed to pharmaceutical grade starch (PGS) (the major component of tablets and capsules). Same goes with Cassava. Nigeria’s National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD), Abuja has many publications in this field.
According to NIPRD, all PGS in Nigeria is imported. Over 85% of drugs in Nigeria are imported as finished products and all the raw materials (including starch) used for the local production of the remaining 15% are imported. Much of the imported PGS come from maize, millet or potatoes which all have appreciable amount of starch (between 20 to 80%) yet 70% to 81% of most cassava species in Nigeria is carbohydrate while about 50% to 78% of yam is carbohydrate (mainly starch). There are even some varieties of yam in Nigeria which are not commonly consumed with much higher percentage of starch.
Nigerian scientists and researchers have even expended huge time and funds doing research on extracting starch from these staples. They have gone as far as conducting research on getting PGS from our locally produced starch. Sadly all of these are rotting away in the book shelves and libraries and serving as food for termites.
PGS goes for anywhere between $20 – 40/kg in the international market. So our 70 metric tons of yam as announced by Audu Ogbeh is therefore worth on the average N100 million if it was processed to PGS (assuming it is sold for $30/kg). Going by the price of yam in Nigeria (1kg of yam is sold for less than $1 using $1 to N350), our 70 metric tons of yam will go for about N15 million. So we are losing over N85 million. Starch is also a major component of dusting powders, pastes, ointments and emulsions. So just put your imagination to a simple test and you will understand the huge waste called yam export. And this I must confess happens with regards to every staple crop we export.
Rather than export these staple crops, we can set up starch production plants in places like Katsina Ala and Okpoga in Benue state and you can only but imagine the results. People will get jobs working in those plants. Markets will open around the plants. The towns will open up too. When we export the raw yam, we are also exporting jobs beside losing humongous revenue.

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