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November 01, 2009

Inadequate storage facilities result in big losses for Ivory Coast farmers

by Fulgence Zamblé

Every year, Robert Assalé, a farmer at Tangamourou in the Bondoukou region in east-central Côte d’Ivore, produces an impressive amount of yams. He harvested 30 tonnes in 2007, 42 tonnes in 2008 and has almost surpassed 50 tonnes this year.

However, he’s managed to sell only half of his 2009 harvest on the market and the rest is now under attack from parasites. Some tubers are rotting. ”It’s a constant worry. When the produce is slow to leave the field, I’m likely to lose a great deal of it,” he explains.

At the edge of his field, Assalé has built a shelter with a thatched roof held up by tree trunks and covering 150 square metres. His harvest is stored there, waiting to be taken away by private transporters and sold on the market. Each truck load costs between $225 to $270.

”Our storage methods are very outdated, but we have no choice. Things have been this way for years and I have to say I’m working at a great disadvantage,” he says, glumly surveying an assortment of bacterial, fungal and other problems afflicting his yams.

Of the roughly 7,800 dollars his yam harvest would be expected to fetch this year, Assalé says he realistically doesn’t expect to get more than $4,500 – a shortfall of 43 percent – as many of his yams get to market in such poor condition, they can no longer command top prices. ”The years pass and the losses build up. Ultimately, I lose more than I make,” the 55-year-old laments.

At the small agricultural cooperative in Tangamourou, Assalé has got plenty of company. Fifty year-old Florent Kouadio says, ”We produce a lot, but profit little from our yam harvest. Adequate storage simply does not exist. And let’s not even discuss issues around local processing.”He says that aside from traditional dishes such as foutou (mashed plantain and cassava) and fried or boiled yam which the locals eat, nothing is done on-site with the harvest.

As the country’s main yam-producing area, the Bondoukou region produces 700,000 tonnes of the crop each year for Côte d’Ivoire, according to the country’s National Agency for Rural Development. This makes the West African country the third-largest producer of yams in Africa, after Nigeria and Ghana.

The Interprofessional Fund for Agricultural Research and Advice (known by its French acronym, FIRCA) is an agriculture research and support initiative involving government and private agricultural experts. Pierre Ackah, FIRCA executive directr, says in spite of this ouptut, which supports self-sufficiency of yams in Côte d’Ivoire, there is a genuine food security problem. This is because for a large part of the year, there are no yams available.

”This unavailability is linked to post-harvest losses amounting to approximately 30 to 40 percent of total production. It is also the result of poor access to major production centres, inferior packaging and the difficulty of conserving the product,” said Ackah, presenting a study on the state of farms and techniques around the processing and post-harvest storage of yam and plantain in Abidjan in August.

At some farms in the Boundoukou area, there were harvested yams packed in sacks and stacked on the ground, but not protected from direct sunlight. These tubers are already showing new buds. ”Heat is the primary enemy of yam. If it is exposed to heat for a long time, wastage can only be expected,” says Kouadio.

The lack of adequate storage methods puts farmers at a disadvantage. With 35 tonnes of yams produced in the current season, Kouadio has managed to sell only 20 tonnes. ”I basically sold it very cheap. The buyer offered me 150 CFA francs (about 33 cents) per kilogramme and I agreed immediately because I’m under pressure,” he says. A fairer price for yam would be between 45 and 56 U.S. cent per kilo. He still hopes to sell some of what remains of his harvest and keep a portion to feed his family. ”We often manage some sales in the border communities of Burkina Faso, going through the town of Bouna (in northeastern Côte d’Ivoire). The prices are very low, but we have to do it to avoid excessive losses,” says Kouadio.

Ferdinand Mahan, an agricultural technician in Bondoukou, says that ”there is still no cold room for the refrigeration of yams in the region, as is the case in many other regions in the country. Traditional huts, with no treatment is the norm for storage here. This is no way of ensuring a good future for this crop."

”At the moment, what we teach these farmers is that come harvest time, they should treat them with fungicide, or make sure they regularly shift the stored yams. However, this is an expense few can afford.”

But without it, tonnes of valuable food will be eaten only by insects.

”We must urgently find effective ways to address the problem of storing agricultural produce,” says Lucien Tapé, an analyst based in Abidjan, the Ivorien economic capital. ”Producers are experiencing huge losses and as such, new techniques must be developed to assist them.”


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