Should Nigeria Export Yam? Greg Odogwu

There is no denying the fact that Nigeria faces a major challenge of lack of continuity in governance. Once a new government comes in, it dumps most of the previous administration’s initiatives, and crafts new ones. Sometimes, in order to adopt a past government’s policy without giving the impression that it is not its original idea, the new government so distorts the programme that it loses its essence.

The kind of developmental initiatives that suffer the most are the ones we can call good-but-badly-implemented projects. These types of programmes are those ones that are very useful, well-thought-out and highly innovative, but not well-designed, supported or mainstreamed.

A new government comes in and shoves it by the side, instead of reviewing, rejigging, or overhauling it in order to not only save the resources already invested in it, but also to avail Nigerians the opportunity of reaping the inherent gains enshrined in the spirit of the innovation.

The additional gain in reviewing and improving on good-but-badly-implemented policies is that the new government finds a custom-made window to escape basic flaws in other emerging policies. It will avoid pitfalls; and also use research-based knowledge pool to diversify its options. In other words, it uses one stone to kill two birds.

It is against this backdrop that I view the recent export of yams to Europe and the United States from Nigeria as part of moves to diversify our economy and earn the much-needed foreign exchange. Indubitably, yam export is a sound economic move in a time like this. But, in my opinion, it is not anything to celebrate until we have got it right in similar agro-based initiatives introduced by previous administrations.

If we rashly start yam exportation without astutely analysing the long term effects; and then guarantee its proper integration into our overall national economic agenda, we may wake up one morning and find out that we just robbed Peter to pay Paul.

In fact, if the government recognises that it has opened a door for farm-market conundrum by exporting raw yam without first of all tackling the problem of lack of storage infrastructure and mechanisation, it would not have given the yam export programme the kind of media fireworks it got last week. After all, if not to score political points, why would a government brandish a half-done success story?

As it would still get its money from the export, fanfare or no fanfare, the strategic option would be to engage yam farmers in a “tactical crop mop-up”, while working on a transitional system strengthening.

Even the Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh, himself agreed that there were gaping structural lacuna in the industry. Why addressing the concerns of Nigerians regarding yam export, he admitted that farm produce were allowed to waste in Nigeria because of infrastructure deficit. However, he failed to tell Nigerians the plans he had for solving these problems. And to me, it is more important to tell us how to get out of this infrastructural logjam than how much we would make by selling yams.

Nigeria is the highest producer of yam globally, so what? What if the yams are bought by China – who has already placed orders – and then processed into finished products and shipped back to us to buy? Is it not better to concentrate our efforts on how to avoid wasting our raw yams by researching into yam processing innovations? Haven’t we learnt our lessons from other exported raw materials (remember crude oil and cocoa) that we today spend foreign currencies to import their processed by-products?

We must remember that Nigeria is also the world’s highest producer of cassava. Yet, we still import Ghana garri!

In 2001, then President Olusegun Obasanjo inaugurated the Presidential Committee on Cassava Export Promotion with a mandate to earn $5bn annually from 150 million metric tons. But 16 years down the line, we have yet to actualise the vision. We still use cassava mainly as staple food, while a cassava producing country like Thailand has developed a robust cassava industry driven by innovative enhancement of the entire value chain. It is now the largest exporter of cassava chips and pellets to China and India. It also dominates the European market with cassava products especially as livestock feeds, sweeteners, organic acid, alcohols, modified starch, sugar alcohols, pearls and tapioca.

What happened was that when Obasanjo set the ball rolling, many Nigerian farmers, including fresh graduates, rushed into cassava farming. But when business eventually became unprofitable because the government did not institute mop-up strategies for the glutted raw cassava market, most farmers abandoned the business.

For the avoidance of doubt, Nigerian farmers are very resilient and hard-working. But just like most rustic farmers of this world, they have a peculiar attitude to production, which is very similar to hive mentality. Once a crop is giving good seasonal yield, every farmer invests in it. They even abandon some other low yield crop in order to “follow the crowd”. And when this promising crop suddenly disappoints them by failing to give the expected yield in a particular season, they all dump it straight away and move to any other hopeful stock.

They also react to market fluctuations in this manner. If a particular crop is profitable, there is the tendency for most farmers to jump into its production. When that particular crop loses its demand and therefore its profitability, everybody dumps it at once.

Most developed economies of the world have adapted to this traditional tendencies by designing farmer-friendly economic policies. They ensure that realistic database is established for food production tracking. The vagaries of demand-and-supply economics is so cushioned that the farmers’ outlook is stabilized.

A country like the United States ensures that no matter the quantum of yield the farmer has after each harvest, he finds a market for it. In order to stabilize the economy, the government mops up the farmers yield, thereby enabling him to find the cash to invest in next season. In this way, the government becomes the national agricultural shock absorber. Agro-jobs are thus guaranteed, and food security sustained.

In Nigeria, the story is different. The farmer cultivates tomato for instance, and during harvest finds out that the market is glutted with tomatoes. He comes home downcast. There is no place to store the excess vegetables. The next day he goes back, and decides to sell his produce for peanuts. He succeeds in selling just a few baskets. The cost of transporting the rest is costly, so he abandons baskets of tomatoes at the market roadside where they rot away. The next season, he moves over to potato farming.

The present administration needs to start telling us how it plans to end this vicious circle. Nigerian farmers need to have access to credit facilities at one digit interest. They need a system that ensures access to market for food produced. They need security of their lives and properties so as to safely continue in their farming activities. Also, Nigerians need accurate data on food production index. With the ever-escalating price of foodstuff, it is obvious that nobody has true data on how much food Nigeria produces, exports, and consumes.

1 Comment

  1. Nigerians in diaspora consume these products and penchant for native products necessary for high demand as Nigerians abroad move into higher economic niche. Starage /handlng crisis at home? get rich quick without sweat by individuals and coporate entities? among the exporters, who has Yam or Cassava farm?Where is power to innovate/go for high end /value added products of these raw materials?
    We notoriously pursue shadows here. Immaculately dressed in 21st Century garb but with brain resident in 13th century.
    in the diaspora with structured ambience, Nigerians perform wonders. National penchant for primordial tendency robs nation of progress.
    About 50million people at Independence, 220million as at today. See where we concentrate our energy/skill?

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