Nigeria has set in motion machinery that will see the country exporting yam to Europe and the Americas in the shortest possible time. A Technical Committee on Nigerian Yam Export Programme was inaugurated in February 2017 and the programme flagged off June 29 by then acting President Yemi Osinbajo. The committee is headed by professor Simon Irtwange.
We welcome this yam export initiative of the government as a way to wean the country off dependence on a single foreign exchange earner, oil. This fossil fuel is becoming less reliable as a revenue earner, this besides its many other disadvantages like environmental pollution. Diverification of the revenue base, therefore, is very critical to the reflation of the Nigerian economy still in recession.
There are certain things that stand Nigeria in a good stead to export yam, though right now its staple crop. For one, we account for over 60 percent of the global yam output put at 51,778 tonnes in 2008. Nigeria’s yam cultivation belt runs from the North-central region through the Middlebelt, the South-east to the North-west.
Agriculture minister Chief Audu Ogbeh expects Nigeria to gross $8bn in foreign exchange annually. He thinks that we should be able to upstage Ghana, already well established in this export business, as the largest yam exporter in Africa. “I saw the figures of Ghana’s earnings from yam export and their targets for the future and it was quite impressive”, he told the technical committee. “If Ghana can aim at a few billion dollars a year from yam, there is no reason why Nigeria cannot quadruple that”.
Chief Ogbeh added: “This programme has to succeed; we must sell whatever we produce to the world because we are buying too much”. The minister is right about Nigeria’s rising food import bill. It imported, for instance, over $1bn worth of American and Thai rice annually between 2009 and 2013. Within that period local production plummetted because of foreign competition.
Besides improving our import substitution drive, yam exports will draw our unemployed teeming young men and women into agriculture. We shall have a pool of younger people to replace the present population of yam farmers who are ageing fast. A gradual drop in urban crime will be the inevitable result.
However, there is something in the minister’s tone that is worrying. There is a tinge of desperation and doubt, suggesting that not much thouht has gone into the programme. He said it “must” succeed. With adequate planning, we don’t see why the programme shouldn’t succeed. But given the country’s lack of an up to date data base that has made national development planning a harrowing experience, we can see Chief Ogbeh’s discomfort. He correctly asked, “Can we design a plough that can make the yam heaps?” With a comatose industrial sector, the question is rhetorical.
Prof. Irtwange did his best to reassure the minister that the job could be done. He said, “We have standards that we are following and they have to do with pytho-sanitary requirements to meet international standards. We have combined the standards of Ghana and Nigeria to make sure our yams are not rejected at the international markets”. But his confidence baloon was pricked by concerns raised by yam exporters over a possible high market rejection rate and the country’s notorious inter agency rivalry.
Federal agencies participating in the programme include the Nigerian Police Force, Directorate of State Security, Quarantine Services, National Drugs Law Enforcement Agency, Nigerian Immigration Services, Nigeria Customs Services and FAAN Aviation Security, “among others”. There is a wise saying, “too many hands spoil the soup”. This large number is a sure recipe for disaster. Already, two agencies – Quarantine Services and FAAN – are quarrellling over access to export and import destination points at airports.
Exporters have also complained over lack of quality yam seedlings, transportation and storage. Add to these concerns over whether we are meeting domestic yam demand. The WHO recently placed Nigeria in the list of countries that will be hit by famine and starvation this 2017 from failed harvests due to terrorist activities. Prof. Irtwange himself hinted at a funding difficulty for his committee. These are veritable challenges that the government needs to confront head on. Resolving them will be the key to the success of the yam export programme. Anything short of that amounts to wishful thinking.