A Zambian agronomist believes growing yams can spur sustainable food security. Davis Mulenga finds out more.
Lamsen Nkhata (25) remembers the first time he really thought about growing yam as a cash crop. With a bachelor’s degree in agro forestry from Zambia’s Copperbelt University (CBU), Nkhata visited Israel 5 years ago. He was amazed at how the tiny country – in a semi-arid region – grows enough food for domestic and export markets.
“I thought there must also be a better way for Zambia, which has abundant land and water. It didn’t make sense that food security was still an issue,” he says.
On a nondescript piece land at Zanimuone, some 10 km north of the capital Lusaka, the lanky agronomist started experimenting with growing aerial and ground yams. He also developed a crop nursery using the propagation method.
BUILDING AND GROWING
Soon, Nkhata and partner Michael Mwaindila, were drawing the attention of people interested in growing yams. They started conducting yam growing workshops at their Zanimuone site and have since trained more than 150 people.
The two also contracted 10 out-growers in Kapiri on the Copperbelt. This approach, expected to be expanded to other provinces, will give them the economies of scale. “We hope to build strong farmer out-grower schemes and provide linkages to effectively access markets and receive better prices,” Nkhata says.
Talking to older generations, he learned that Zambians have long been eating yams, but the promotion of maize obscured the uptake of the crop. “A lot of people told me their parents or grandparents used to prepare meals out of ground yams,” he says.
Nkhata is convinced that yams will serve as a good substitute for maize meal, as it is more nutritious. This, combined with better yields per hectare compared to other arable crops, makes a compelling case for market potential. Though the crop has a longer cropping cycle, it is vital in the annual cycle of food availability due to its broader agro-ecological adaptation.
The diverse maturity period and in-ground storage ability also give the crop flexibility during its harvesting period for sustained food security. In addition, yams are generally disease and drought-resilient, making it suitable to address the need for improved crop productivity.
There are promising market opportunities for the crop and it already fetches good prices. One plant yields an average of 25 kg, with a kilogram fetching K15. More than 10 000 kg can be produced on a hectare per year.
Nkhata says a healthy market already exists, thanks to consumption in West African, Congolese and Asian communities. A visit to Lusaka’s markets – where cross-border traders in the Common Market for Southern and Eastern Africa (COMESA) converge – shows many thriving restaurants serving yam-based meals.
“This suggests that there is already a huge market locally. In addition, one can look at the bigger market outside of Zambia in the COMESA region,” he says.
Beyond this market, Nkhata wants to convert millions of Zambians to yam meal. This will help create vibrant and sustainable value chains.
He cites Zambia’s high rate of malnutrition in children under five to prove the advantages of yam-growing and believes it can improve nutrition.
“The spin-off will be new jobs and income generation opportunities, especially for Zambian youths, through improved value chains,” he says.
Yams can be converted into primary food products by boiling and then pounding it into dough. It can be mashed, roasted, baked and fried. Peeled yams can also be processed into a broader range of products, including dried chips.
Nkhata and his partner have decided to organically grow the common variety called Dioscorea odoratissima pax. The planting season is in September, drawing on moisture and nutrients stored in the tuber. Planting materials consist of bulbs that grow into vines.
For the primary material, they travelled to Eastern Province where yams grow wild, but these days their own nursery is thriving.
The bulbs are planted in mounds. It is pushed into the soil at intervals of between ½-1 m. Yams take between 6 and 12 months to mature, and can be intercropped with other produce. Harvest time starts in May and the produce is usually stored in a cool, dry room.
Nkhata says yams are generally more labour intensive than some other crops, due to the associated clearing and mounding, stake-tying, weeding and harvesting. It also has a high expenditure in planting materials compared to other tubers.
While playing an important role in enhancing Zambia’s food security and the socio-economic wellbeing of smallholder farmers, yam farmers face the same challenges as their counterparts in growing arable crops.
“Obtaining good quality planting material is one of the major constraints, coupled with a lack of funding needed as start-up capital,” Nkhata says.
This leads to stunted institutional and human capacity to develop the crop’s diversification drive. The absence of strong policy support has also contributed to the slow pace of crop commercialisation.
To address this, Nkhata recommends introducing incentives and links for farmers to primary and secondary processors. This must be reinforced by the facilitation of public-private partnerships (PPSs) to encourage cross-sector collaboration and knowledge sharing, especially to create agricultural value chains.
“This calls for specific yam growing initiatives, as the case has been for maize,” he says.
Nkhata sees the AfricaYam project as a tangible capacity building programme to accelerate commercialisation of yam production in Africa. According to Nkhata, smallholder producers like him can benefit from the tools developed by AfricaYam to enhance production.