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There’s great opportunity for potato export in Nigeria – Ajetomobi

By on September 8, 2013

The Federal Government released its plan early this year to improve the productivity of sweet potato in the country from the six tonnes per hectare to 25 tonnes per hectare by 2015, and national production from two million to six million tonnes per annum by 2016. Renowned agro-economist, Professor Olusegun Ajetomobi, who currently sits on the editorial board of China-USA Business Review, identifies employment of staff in agricultural development programmes in the country as key factor, in this interview with TOSIN ADENIRAN. Excerpts…


In this era of diversification into agriculture, how does sweet potato contribute to economic growth?

The potato industry is a large part of the agricultural base in Nigeria, which is the third largest producer of sweet potatoes in the world. Potato production and processing industries purchase some of their inputs from other local industries. The employees of potato farms and processing plants spend part of their income on local goods and services. These purchases magnify the total economic impact of potatoes on the economy of potato-producing states. Several cross-sectional studies show that potato business is more profitable than other tubers.

Sweet potato is not just an established staple crop, but an important source of raw materials for the manufacture of wide range of industrial products such as starch, liquid glucose, ethanol and a substitute for wheat flour in bread. In terms of relationship with farmers, companies can assist the farmers to access improved variety, so that quality will not be compromised. As part of establishing long-term buyer-supplier relationship, manufacturers can engage in healthy forward contract with farmers and offer reasonable extension advice. It is the duty of the manufacturers to also increase their access to export market.

Orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) as a staple food has an advantage over most vegetables, in that it can supply significant amounts of vitamin A and energy simultaneously – thus helping to address both vitamin A deficiency (VAD) and malnutrition. OFSP is an example of a bio-fortified crop in which the micronutrient status of staple foods is enhanced through plant breeding to the point where impact on micronutrient status can be achieved. Since the poorest households typically obtain over 60 per cent of their energy needs from food staples, this strategy particularly suits poor rural households that cannot access purchased fortified food products but could grow OFSP.

To evaluate potential health and economic impact, economists estimate the number of VAD-related Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) that could potentially be saved through the use of bio-fortified sweet potato. Results indicate that just by replacing white-fleshed with orange-fleshed varieties, the VAD burden could be reduced by 15 to 22 per cent in 17 Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) countries where sweet potato is widely grown. Because of the very high levels of childhood malnutrition on the continent, the high prevalence of HIV in a large number of countries, Nigeria inclusive, and the close correspondence between nutrition and overall health status, nutritional programmes have assumed a much larger profile in health ministries and with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in livelihoods and community development.  Activities to reduce micronutrient malnutrition, especially among young children and pregnant and lactating mothers, involve two principal approaches. The first is supplements, such as Vitamin A capsules, principally dispersed through medical clinics. These programmes tend to be organised as campaigns and do not provide continuity of access and as well have limitations in terms of coverage.

The alternative approach has been fortification of frequently-consumed foods with micronutrients limited in the diet. These are very effective in addressing nutritional problems in households who primarily purchase their food. But these tend to be urban populations, whereas the populations with the high prevalence of under-nutrition are in the rural areas, primarily among households who do not have large food purchases.

The alternative to these two strategies are food-based approaches, where households grow and consume crops that provide the requisite vitamins and micronutrients. As such, sweet potato is the first bio-fortified crop in use at farmer and household level.

However, this is still very early stages in the widespread deployment of OFSP. Deepening the nutritional impact across the range of agro-ecologies, the variation in child health status, the differences in institutional contexts for deployment, and the spectrum of market systems

Is there anything like micro-propagation or propagation in the Nigerian potatoes value chain?

The establishment of sweet potatoes in Nigeria includes propagation and various measures to ensure high-yielding good quality crop such as irrigation, integrated soil fertility and pest and disease management. Traditionally, many potatoes farmers utilise the cuttings from the previous crop to establish new cultivations. As with most vegetative propagated crops, the quality of the planting material impacts growth and resultant yield. A major concern is that the farmers source the planting materials themselves or through friends and family, instead of assistance from government established institutes.

Why is research on potatoes low in Nigeria?

There is large number of research activities on potatoes in Nigeria, and the research covers the production, processing, utilisation and marketing. The utilisation of the research output is, however, a major challenge due to poor extension services. For instance, it is worrisome that most agricultural development programmes in the country are short of staff in the face of million unemployed graduates of Agricultural Science. Research evidence shows that the ratio of Extension Agent (EA) to Farm Family (FF) in Nigeria is 1:1,722. This is low when compared to 1:1,200 (Indonesia), 1:800 (Mexico), 1:1,000 (Tanzania), 1:252 (Japan) and 1:500 (South Korea). In China and Vietnam, on average, there is one extension worker per 280 farm family.

Why have we not been exporting potatoes to countries like Spain that depend on imported potatoes?

Today, potatoes have become an integral part of much of the world’s cuisine and are the world’s fourth-largest food crop, following rice, wheat and maize. Hence, there exists great opportunities for export of potatoes in Nigeria. One basic reason for poor export might be over-reliance on export of crude oil and less attention paid by the governments to the export of non-traditional products. Another major issue may be poor motivation for manufacturers interested in packaging and processing of the crops to meet the basic requirements of the importers. Meanwhile, the need to meet the local demand for potatoes and its processed products may create some challenges in meeting the raw material needs of exporting firms.

Nigeria expects to cut 25 tonnes per hectare in 2015 even as we presently produce 6.7 tonnes; how feasible is this?

The issue of raising the yield of potatoes in Nigeria is a major one. While the nation is the third largest producer in the world, her rank in terms of the yield is 94. This means that efforts to increase the yield alone can make the nation to be the world’s leading producer. In order to increase yield, growers can increase yield by planting as early as possible to extend the length of the growing season in areas where daylight hours are limited. Also, planting physiologically-aged potatoes that emerge quickly, planting at optimum soil temperatures to ensure fast crop emergence (minimum of 53.6°F is desirable), use of irrigation, crop nutrition and crop protection methods to ensure maximum canopy life and unlimited tuber growth, selecting the right variety, minimising growth checks at tuber initiation (e.g. drought, compaction), physiologically-ageing seed to produce the desired number of buds per tuber, spacing seed to ensure an optimum number of stems per square metre, using crop protection inputs – such as herbicides and nematicides – to ensure the crop grows relatively unhindered, can increase yield. I believe that these are practicable within the limit of potato growers in Nigeria, given the right extension advices.

What are the problems confronting potatoes farmers in the country?

Major production constraints facing potatoes farmers are: land fragmentation, lack of improved practices, poor storability, insufficient credit facilities, poor extension services, poor road transportation and high cost of productivity increasing inputs. In addition, the marketing of the crop is dominated by middlemen. All the stakeholders are currently facing diverse challenges. Most of the farmers are smallholders with low levels of education and poor productivity. Most of them plant potatoes as secondary or minor crop in a mixed cropping system. Another major concern of the producers is poor access to sufficient credit to buy productivity increasing inputs such as insecticides, herbicides, fertiliser, improved seeds etc. Hence, incidence of pests and diseases is a serious factor limiting potatoes production in Nigeria. The intermediaries face the problems of transport costs including taxes en route, which is about 38 per cent of the retail prices. Poor road infrastructure is another problem facing the intermediaries as well as the crop’s poor storability. Obviously, the problems always cause volatility in the retail prices of potatoes from one season to another.




[Daily Independent]