The revelation by the Agriculture and Rural Development Minister, Mr Audu Ogbe, that the Federal Government is targeting eight billion US Dollars worth of foreign exchange annually from the export of yams is an indication of government’s seriousness in diversifying the foreign exchange base of the economy. But we really need to approach the issue with tact and strategy, otherwise it might go the way of other grand plans we embraced in the past which came to naught. Top government officials at state and federal levels have spoken grandiloquently about plans to re-launch the cash crops that once were the backbones of our economy before the advent of crude oil – palm produce, cocoa, groundnuts, cashew nuts, shea butter, cassava, gum arabic, cotton and the others – yet little has come of them.
However, our renewed efforts at boosting rice production, which started in the President Goodluck Jonathan regime and commendably continues to grow under the current dispensation with little political roadblock, could encourage us to hope that launching yams into a big-time cash crop and export product status can work. If it can work in Ghana (which) is already exporting yams, it can work even better in Nigeria, which is the world’s largest producer of the product even with our subsistence-level farming methods. It is encouraging to note that already, a Technical Committee on Nigeria Yam Export Programme (TCNYEP) headed by Professor Simon Irtwange is already active. The Committee is expected to liaise with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Umudike as well as other relevant institutional stakeholders to work out a framework for its successful implementation. There is a need to classify the various yam varieties we have in Nigeria, develop improved strains through research and formulate or acquire the technologies to enable mechanised farming, of the crop . This is both to enable econ0mics of scale and also secure the interests of the younger generations to go into the venture. Massive production of international-quality yams is the only basis for us to compete favourably with Ghana and other producers. Without it, we cannot talk about exporting yams since the cost of this national staple is still astronomical due to outdated farming, preservation and transportation methods in use. We must never place too much emphasis on the exportation of yams until we have produced enough for it to be easily available and affordable to ordinary Nigerians year round. We must also painstakingly develop yam value chains, which will enable us create a large number of cottage industries to convert yam products into industrial raw materials before we export. The idea should never be to export raw yams alone, otherwise we will not benefit from the massive employment that a well-organised value chain provides.