COVID19 – Work in shifts, researchers advise yam seed producers and farmers

8 June 2020

To reduce the spread of COVID-19, governments all over the world have instituted specific measures such as physical distancing and staying at home. Unfortunately, for farmers, time is of the essence since the rainy season is here and it will soon end, – whether we are facing a pandemic or not. For farmers, the rains mean they must be in their fields planting or else they will miss the season. We talked to Dr Norbert Maroya, the Project Leader of the Yam Improvement for Incomes and Food Security in West Africa (YIIFSWA) about yam farming in Nigeria and Ghana, where the project currently operates.

COVID19 – Work in shifts, researchers advise yam seed producers and farmers
Yam seed sprouting

Maroya says IITA-CGIAR has been in contact with public and private partners over the phone, advising them how to ensure continuity even with the pandemic. “We advised our partners to work in shifts —always have at least one person who can stay on-site for two-three days and take care of the plants in aeroponics, hydroponics and nurseries. If the yam plants in screen houses are not regularly watered, they will die.”

It is not just screen house plants that are at risk but also the seed tubers in storage awaiting planting. When the tubers are ready for planting, they start sprouting. When kept beyond their planting time, the tubers’ sprouts grow profusely. Maroya explains that one can extend the planting more time by cutting off the shoots; however, this should only be done twice. “The more the tubers sprout, the more nutrients they lose and become lighter in weight. If a farmer keeps cutting the shoot, the tubers become distressed due to continued loss of nutrients and moisture and eventually wither and rot. So, it is advisable to cut the shoot only twice at a one month interval as the farmers devise safe ways of planting the tuber.”

Should one decide not to cut the shoot and let it sprout, they will lose much more. “If the seed tubers remain in storage for more than two months after sprouting, the farmer loses up to three-quarters of their potential yield capacity and production volume,” Maroya clarifies. He adds that if a farmer had seed yam that could cover a hectare, but due to COVID-19 stay-at-home measures, is unable to plant immediately and waits for two months, by the time they plant the same seed, it will cover only half to quarter a hectare.

COVID19 – Work in shifts, researchers advise yam seed producers and farmers
Yam seed

Staying at home is one measure that cannot apply to farmers during the planting season. They cannot stay away from their fields because the world’s food and nutrition security depend on them. However, they must adhere to other safety measures such as frequent handwashing with soap and running water, physical distancing and wearing a face mask in public.

Yam is a high-value crop in West Africa. According to FAO, in Nigeria, yam has a higher production value than all the other five major food staples; maize, cassava, rice, millet and sorghum combined.