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A success story with yams

TALL and loose-limbed, Folorunso Fayinka loves to farm. He can hardly wait to leave his city job in Ibadan for his family's 50 acres at the foot of a steep green hill. Not that his job is a bad one: He is general manager of a livestock company.

He and his family live in a large house, as befits members of Nigeria's upper middle class. He holds a bachelor of science degree in animal science from Kansas State University and studied for 18 months at Cornell.

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``But I think about my farm all the time,'' he says with a grin. ``See those yams? And the pineapples? The cassava? Give me a spare hour and you know where to find me. . . .''

Mr. Fayinka has three big advantages over other African farmers -- and he knows it:

He lives just down the road from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan.

An old college friend holds a senior IITA position.

He is willing to try new varieties, to innovate, to experiment.

Right now, he is benefiting greatly from IITA research into yams.

Standing on his land, I could see the gleam of sunlight dotted here and there on row after row of plastic sheeting.

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The sheets keep down weeds and conserve moisture as tiny pieces of seed yam obtained from IITA scientists sprout and grow underneath.

Usually, seed yams are expensive. Only the well-to-do can afford them.

But Nigerian government scientists have come up with a new idea: slicing seed yams into as many as 20 pieces, or ``minisetts.''

IITA experts such as John A. Otoo, a Ghanaian, then developed the idea of presprouting the small pieces in damp sawdust.

``I couldn't believe my eyes,'' Fayinka recalled. ``These minisetts produce an edible yam 20 times their size.

``The plastic sheeting is a great help and also lets the vines of the yam plant trail on the ground. Saves making the stakes we've had to use until now. The cost per minisett is much much lower than seed yams were before.

``And the yield! Well, up to 20 tons per hectare [about 2.5 acres]. We only ever got 6 to 10 tons before. . . .''

Plastic sheeting is, like most other consumer goods, immensely expensive in Nigeria, so the enterprising Fayinka procured some from IITA, which regards him as a leading exponent of its yam ideas.

In fact Fayinka is the first head of a newly formed yam growers' association which is promoting the new methods.

Already Dr. Otoo and his team have distributed 4 million of the new ``minisett'' yam seeds to farmers who come to IITA gates.

Fayinka is also planting IITA cassava on his 50 acres (he likes it because it is free from bacterial blight), approves of IITA sweet potatoes (``not too sweet, my children fry it''), and is plunging into IITA soybeans and cowpeas.

He glanced at the sky. ``Got to go,'' he said. ``I can get some work in before the sun goes down. . . .''

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