Why? (Yam and Wood) by Feyi Fawehinmi

A couple of days ago, The Guardian Nigeria committed a serious act of journalism with an excellent multimedia story on the wood industry and market in Lagos. If you haven’t read it yet, leave what you’re doing and read it here now.

It’s an example of what is not being done by the Nigerian media — bringing stories to life in a way that educates the reading public. Well done to Yemisi Adegoke who wrote the story and Yinka Obebe who took the photos.

But I want to talk about a part of the story that I found incredibly disturbing. I will quote the relevant parts at length:
But in the midst of the rags-to-riches stories lies something more troubling — the growing number of issues that threaten the very survival of the business. The rise of the cost of business is squeezing profit margins at all levels, with the sawyers who invest the money to finance the operations especially feeling the pinch.
‘’Economically, things are not the same in Nigeria again,’’ says Goodluck Pemi. “Everybody is complaining about one thing or another and the cost of the business is higher. Even feeding is expensive and wood workers can finish a bag of garri in a week because we eat a lot of eba.”

Bad roads, poor infrastructure and little governmental support also don’t create the best environment for the market to continue growing, as well as outdated machines.


But perhaps the biggest concern lies with the wood origins. ‘’Somewhere near Ijebu-ode, around ’81, 82, 83, when I had the opportunity to be there, you would see seeders planted by the Europeans. But today, that place has been destroyed completely,’’ Akolo shares.

Deforestation in Nigeria is a serious problem with the UN reporting that Nigeria is one of the top ten countries in the world with the highest rates of deforestation. As a nation, Nigeria relies heavily on wood, particularly for energy, but loses about 350,000 to 400,000 hectares of land a year, to deforestation. Further rapid deforestation could prove devastating. “Government says ‘to cut one tree, you plant three’ but we don’t do that. We only cut and we don’t plant. Our forests are going.” While Akolo worries, Pemi says, “You can’t go out of it (leave the job). It is better to stick to it and manage what you have in your hand than staying idle.” But for how much longer will this business survive?

Last month, America’s NPR did a story on Nigerian yam farming and the various challenges with it. Here’s the part I want to talk about [emphasis mine]:

But in the past few years, Nigeria’s yam yield has dropped to its lowest level in two decades, according to the United Nations, even though the area of land under cultivation is rapidly rising.
“For a large number of farmers, seed yam is a big problem,” said Robert Aseidu, West Africa research director for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), a nonprofit research organization based in Nigeria. “It’s only now that we’re seeing how big a problem this could become.”

The trouble stems from the way yam is grown by Nigeria’s small farmers. New tubers grow directly from planted pieces of old ones, rather than from seed. Traditionally, farmers will set aside the more measly yams from each harvest to use as seed yams for the next season, and take the bigger ones away to eat or sell. Having a big enough harvest to be able to keep your own seed yams is a mark of a farmer’s competence; buying them at the market is considered bad luck.
At the same time, yams are clonal, meaning that each tuber is genetically identical to its “parent.” So farmers are essentially planting the same yam over and over again, with none of the routine genetic mutation that typically occurs between generations to help ward off pests and diseases. And because farmers tend to set aside the worst yams as parents, they’re unintentionally practicing a kind of anti-Darwinian “survival of the scrawniest.”
“When you have this recycling over so many years, then they keep accumulating pests and diseases, and then productivity keeps reducing until you get to a stage where it’s no [longer] economical to plant anything,” says Beatrice Aighewi, a yam specialist at IITA.

What is going on here? There is no other way to describe this other than a purely destructive culture. In that same article about wood business, the traders talk about how they buy jeeps and build houses from the proceeds of the business. The wood ‘venture capitalists’ spend at least N3m on each expedition. The business is profitable. So why can they not secure their own future by reinvesting just a small part of their proceeds in planting trees to ensure, if not them, their kids have something to make money off in future?

Ticket to Mecca — One way
In the article about yams, the farmers talk about making money from a good harvest and then using the proceeds to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. So why on earth are they replanting the worst of their yams? In both cases, their businesses are literally dying before their very eyes and they are seemingly incapable of breaking out of a clearly destructive pattern?


The oyinbo man planted trees many decades ago. You know he planted them. You are cutting them down. You know the oyinbo man has left. The trees you are cutting down are providing you with enough money to buy a jeep. Do you not want more jeeps? Or do you not want something for your children to cut down? Yet you cut them down without replacing them and then spend the money killing yourself with enjoyment?


As I wrote in my last piece in The Guardian, we urgently need social scientists in policy making in Nigeria. It is impossible for a country to make much progress under these conditions. Are we going to sit around waiting for the EU to throw some money at tree planting to replace the forests that we have turned to jeeps? Tree planting is surely not that hard — I see them planting them every time here. You stick them in the ground and allow nature do the rest.

A lot of the problems afflicting Nigeria today are in the head. Yes, Nigerian leadership has been and is currently hopeless. But there is a problem here that can only be fixed by getting inside the heads of Nigerians and zapping these destructive neurons.

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