Millions of people worldwide suffer from food insecurity and various forms of malnutrition as a result of the high cost of healthy diets. In Ethiopia, several factors contribute to this scenario, including climate change, lack of technology and/or access to it, sociocultural problems, biotic and abiotic factors, and the dearth of skilled labor (Semahegn 2021). According to Anderson (2012), climate change alone could reduce maize and wheat production by 3.8 percent and 5.5 percent, respectively. In addition, new and emerging fungal and oomycete pathogens constantly threaten staples and other economically important commodity crops (Fones et al. 2020).
In 2020, international development agencies report that approximately 811 million people worldwide faced hunger (FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, and WHO, 2021). Ethiopia, for one, has a population that is growing at 1.4 percent per year on average, a rate that will double the current number of people to 205 million by 2050. Small-scale farmers, threatened with fragmented farmlands, recurring droughts, and lack of rainfall are unlikely to produce harvests that will meet this growing demand (Agidew and Singh 2018). Already, despite Ethiopia’s abundance of natural resources, more than five million live in poverty. As (Deressa and Hassan 2009) posit, the number of people living in poverty increases as crop net revenue per hectare decreases over time due to climate change.
Scientists have long advocated that feeding the world’s population in the face of dwindling resources necessitates appropriate policy and research investments. For the developing world, some solutions hold great promise. Biotechnology, for example, can be applied to boost cereal crops production. Farms can be diversified to grow fruits and vegetables (Islam et al., 2018). More specifically, farmers can take advantage of the benefits that can be derived from orphan (underutilized) crops.
Orphan crops are those that have been understudied and underexploited despite their potential to provide low-income families with employment, revenues, and a more diverse diet (Massawe et al., 2015). Among them are yams (Dioscorea spp.), whose nutritional and pharmacological properties can combat hidden hunger caused by micronutrient deficiency (Padhan &Panda, 2020; Epping & Laibach 2020). Yam production in Ethiopia, therefore, deserves a second look.
The present article highlights opportunities and suggests strategies to improve yam production in Ethiopia using evidence from experiences in West and Central Africa.
1.1 Yams in Ethiopia
Yams are plants in the Dioscoreaceae family’s largest genus, Dioscorea, under which falls over 600 species. They are monocotyledonous herbaceous vines with starchy underground or aerial tubers that climb. Yam tubers, formed by the activity of ground meristems, are more similar anatomically to the stem than to the roots. The aerial stems of yams are frequently long and twining, with alternate or opposite leaves, but are less commonly short and erect, with a single leaf subtending it (Caddick et al., 2002).
There are over 600 yam species in the tropics and subtropics. Martin and Ortiz (1963) report the geographical origins and domestication, distribution, botanical classification, morphology, and cytology of yam species. Various edible yam species have been domesticated independently in America, Africa, Madagascar, South and Southeast Asia, Australia, and Melanesia. The origins of various yam species vary geographically. However, according to Coursey (1967), yam species found throughout the tropics originated from three distinct geographical centers— West Africa, Southeast Asia, and tropical America. Ethiopia’s yams differ from the species commonly cultivated in West Africa (Tamiru et al., 2007). Coursey (1967) confirmed that D. abyssinica originated in Ethiopia, although its cultivation is limited within the country.