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Better Yams Feed Africa

FILE: A woman shops for yams that have risen in price due to changes in Nigeria's fuel subsidy at Mile 12 market in Lagos, January 14, 2012.

Yams - pounded into paste, ground into flour, boiled or fried – provide sustenance and livelihoods across West Africa. But growing conditions across the "yam belt" from Guinea to Cameroon are deteriorating just as prices of other staples soar.

in Ibadan, a transit and tech startup hub 130 km (80 miles) northeast of Lagos, molecular geneticist Dr Ranjana Bhattacharjee says she hopes to change things for the better by helping to create hardier and more adaptable plants.

"If you want to make an improvement in crops, then you have to do genome sequencing to understand the genes of your targeted traits like disease resistance (and) quality," Bhattacharjee said.

She is working at the city's International Institute of Tropical Agriculture to complete whole-genome sequencing of around 1,000 yam samples – work she says paves the way for moves to ensure future crops are more adaptable to a changing climate.

Sequencing their genomes could help West African farmers, who grow some 90% of all yams worldwide, improve their yield and keep it high, said Bhattacharjee, adding once the results are published, others will work on applying them.

Yams, bigger than their unrelated north American namesake, symbolize prosperity, wealth and even fertility in West Africa.

The need to boost locally grown crops is particularly acute because of global food price rises since some major producing countries decided to export less food and Russia's invasion of Ukraine blocked that country's grain and sunflower seed exports.

"That will then ultimately lead to food security, not only in Nigeria but also in West Africa where the yam is being grown," she said.