Cocoyam as a traditional staple root crop, still cultivated below potential 


With rising cost of yam, rice, garri, yam flour and other food crops, Nigerians are desperately looking for alternatives to overcome the current economic crunch. One of the food items gaining attention at the moment is Cocoyam.

Cocoyam is a traditional staple root crop, commonly grown among small-scale farmers who operate within the subsistence economy. In the past, it is regarded as a lowly crop, which cultivation and consumption lie among the less privileged farmers, but presently it is consumed by Nigerians of different cadres.
It’s very easy to cultivate. Cocoyam thrives better on a well-drained loamy soil and can be planted immediately the rain is steady. It produces optimum yields when planted in fertile soil with a good water retention capacity. Most cocoyam varieties mature in about eight months from planting. It has two main varieties-white and pink and can be planted on the crest of the heaps or ridges at one meter apart on row.
Experts say it has better nutritional qualities than other root and tuber crops such as cassava and yam, with higher protein, vitamin and mineral content. A versatile staple, cocoyam can also be used as weaning food, while the leaves can be cooked as vegetable.
However, as its demand increases, there is shortage of the crop in some parts of the country, especially Southwest. This, according to The Guardian’s findings is due to the fact that cocoyam is under-estimated and poorly cultivated.
A farmer, Mr. Olusoji Owoeye said cocoyam production played vital role in alleviating the problem of food security and income generation for farmers who embrace its cultivation. He added that its cultivation is cheaper to maintain compared to other crops, and matures steadily without fear of poor production.
“It is very easy to mix with other crops when planting. It doesn’t need much labour when planted, compared to other crops. The mixed farming option was because cocoyam could be planted alongside maize, melon or other grains. A whole cormel or cut sett from corms is appropriate for planting and it requires weeding twice during the growing period.”
He however, said majority of the farmers don’t invest more in its cultivation, because they don’t see cocoyam cultivation as a major income earner like yam, rice and others.
Owoeye also cited cases of diseases and ant attacks as other challenges that scare farmers from cultivating cocoyam, as the diseases always have grave effect on the yield. “Whenever Fungus attacks cocoyam plant, the leaves turn yellow prematurely and the entire plant becomes wilt and damping-off of the seedlings may also result. White ants may cause damage on the tubers at any stage of development or even in storage. Other pests include rodents that eat the corms and cormels.
A senior plant pathologist and coordinator of Farming Systems Research Programme (FSRP) at the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Umudike, Abia State, Joseph Onyeka, who authored a Roots, Tubers and Banana (RTB) study that was recently commissioned, confirmed that the current yield of cocoyam is far below its potential yield.
The researcher said cocoyam is not only very important for the livelihood of subsistence farmers, it also serves as a food security crop for farmers, noting that farmers depend on the crop as a major staple food during critical periods of famine and natural disasters.
Onyeka said despite its benefits, along with the wide adaptability of the crop and its role in the economy and livelihood of millions of rural poor, those who depend on the crop have neither the resources nor the voice to influence its future. “It is the responsibility of scientists and policymakers to change this situation through strategic interventions.”
“Tapping the potential of cocoyam as a food and cash crop implies identifying and addressing many constraints, including two important diseases that affect cocoyam production in West and Central Africa: Cocoyam root rot disease (CRRD) and Taro leaf blight (TLB). The impact move beyond one season of damage because cocoyam’s vegetative mode of propagation supports transmission of diseases from one generation to the next.”
Onyeka explained that the recycling of infected planting materials from farmers’ fields leads to reduced yield and build-up of diseases, adding that a recent outbreak of TLB in many countries of West and Central Africa has drastically reduced productivity in the region.
“Both CRRD and TLB are of great concern to cocoyam farmers in the region because of their potential to cause total crop failure, thereby posing a great threat to food security. In addition to constituting a threat to income and food security, both diseases have the potential of depleting the diversity in the already narrow genetic base of these crops due to the high susceptibility of most farmers’ cultivars.”
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