For 30 years, Mr. Orji Nwobana shuttled between Rivers, his state, and Benue, to trade at the famous Zaki Biam Yam Market in Ukum Local Government Area of Benue. From there, he transports the yams in large numbers to Port Harcourt regularly.
He told Daily Trust that he has been in the yam business for long despite the long distance between Rivers and Benue, because of his customers’ preference for Zaki Biam yams.
It was a herculean task maneuvering within the Zaki Biam Yam Market. There were heaps of yams in every corner, making movement very difficult.
It is no exaggeration to say that the market is the largest in the country, and maybe in Africa, as already assumed by some.
As a yam hub, farmers from far and wide bring their produce for better bargains while traders come from across the country and neighbouring Cameroun, Niger and Ghana to make purchases.
Except on Sundays, everyday is a market day. However, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are the busiest. Farmers start bringing in the yams from Mondays while actual purchase begins Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Daily Trust who was at the market on Saturday, and observed that no fewer than 50 articulated vehicles of various sizes loaded with yams leave the market daily for markets outside the state and export outside the country.
Staff Sergeant Paul Ameh of 13 Battalion of the Nigerian Army in Calabar, Cross River State, took time off his vacation to visit the market.
“My wife comes to the market. I am on leave, that is why I have come but my major problem with the market is access roads. There is no good road to the market. The other day, a fully-loaded vehicle collapsed. Another problem is the cost of transportation,” he said.
The soldier thinks government should step in immediately to address the basic needs of the market since it is a huge income earner.
The chairman of the Shed Owners and Dealers Association at the market, Mr. Tavershima Achinge, narrated how the market was relocated to the present site more than three decades ago from the Zaki Biam main market and how different sets of people engage in different transactions there.
“Our culture here is that even if you are a shed owner, you must own a farm. So we have farmers in the market who bring yams for sale, some are also shed owners, we have middlemen who buy and resell, we have wheelbarrow and cart-pushers for movement of yams within the market, there are markers (those who inscribe initials of owners on already-bought yams), there are off-loaders and loaders, there are those who sell grass (to cover the yams for protection from excess heat) and of course, we need food so there are some who sell food,” he said.
“Farming is beneficial because if you consider the peculiarity of our area with the attendant family sizes, if you don’t have a farm, you will have problems trying to feed your family. Even if you work for government, the farm supports you. So, if you are involved in other forms of business the farm serves as a shock absorber in case of losses,” he added.
On the activities of his association, he said they paid for security services, transportation of goods and settle disputes between farmers and buyers as well as provide surveillance to prevent theft or robbery.
He listed the challenges confronting them as lack of water, poor toilets and erosion which has washed off the second gate and the road to the market.
According to him, vehicles now go through the Zaki Biam main market to enter the yam market doing so on market days has constituted a big challenge.
Achinge’s size of yam farm is known in Tiv language as “Akundu Ikyundu.” In local parlance, the size of one’s yam farm among the Tiv is determined in multiples of twenties, hence Achinge’s Akundu Ikyundu means four hundred lines of at least 70 heaps of yams each.
Transactions are based on every 100 tubers, except that some people buy and break them up based on agreed terms, according to Felix Iorkyaa, the Public Relations Officer of the Shed Owners and Dealers Association.
A 48-year-old trader from Taraba State, Ismaila Gambo, said he had been in the yam business for the past 25 years and only buys from Zaki Biam.
There are some challenges because sometimes when the market is filled with yams and there are many vehicles waiting to load, we face the challenge of having to convey the yams to the vehicles. On the highway, the challenge is robbers. I have run into them several times, especially in the east,” Gambo said.
30-year-old Derrick Ata told Daily Trust that he started farming as a child.
“I inherited the trade from my late mother in 2000. For 16 years, I have been in the trade consistently and it has helped to improve my status both socially and financially,” he said.
Ata displayed very big yams at his shade which he called “Apkaaku,” so named in honour of one Akpaaku Dzer, who first started harvesting yams of such sizes. He said they were the highest grade of yams in the market.
“Not everyone can produce them. Usually, an interested farmer would employ labourers and pay N50 per heap from which a whole yam would be planted as seed. The farmer would do it personally or employ labourers who would stake the farm with adequate fertilizer. That way, one is sure of harvesting Akpaaku,” Ata said.
One notable person in the market is Shagbaor Simon Bende, the Tor Sule U Ukum (chief farmer of Ukum), who in 2013, received a joint award from the National Association of Ukum Students and the University of Agriculture, Makurdi chapter of the union after an assessment by students.
Bende, who has 11 wives, told our correspondent that he currently has 27 labourers preparing for the next planting season.
“Since the demise of Ichaver Kper, I have become the top farmer in the whole of Ukum LGA. The students who did the assessment were amazed when they visited me. It was in August but they met yams fully loaded in 12 rooms. 20,000 yams in a year are small to me,” he said.
He also cultivates rice, beans, soybeans, sorghum and groundnuts, in addition to mangoes and other fruits, while also rearing goats, pigs and poultry.
Bende said: “Yams and the Zaki Biam Yam Market are very important in the life of every Ukum man. Although I’m educated to HND level, what places food on my table is my farm. And remember I told you I have 11 wives. As much as we have been trying to control the family size, I still have 23 children and I am able to take care of all of them, including their school fees, because of my farm. The market is here so I don’t have any business travelling outside to sell.
“My problem is that we are not getting the deserved attention from government. It is a shame that Tor Sule is going to the market to buy fertilizer,” he said.
Elizabeth Tsetim, a 42 year-old yam trader, said the aim of engaging in any form of business is to make profit but payment of taxes, cost of marking, loading and packing were making the business difficult.
Joseph Demeza, a 16 year-old student of Government Science and Technical College Zaki Biam who works as a marker after school hours, said he makes at least N1,000 a day.
The Sole Administrator of Ukum Local Government Area, Agar Moses, was delighted answering questions about the uniqueness of the market.
“You can hardly find anyone even among the educated and high profile politicians from this area who is not a farmer. Even if you are educated, you must have a farm. If you don’t have a farm, you are not of Ukum origin,” he said.
Our correspondent learnt that no prominent son of Ukum is without a yam farm. What is however contested is who has the largest farm.
The council chairman while commenting on the problems of the market said his administration will attempt to tackle the challenges, but stressed that it was just coming on board, and considering the strategic nature of the market to the economy of the local government, he hopes to move in immediately and address the issues.
“First, we are going to dismantle the existing security arrangement in the market. We hope to introduce a shift system whereby no one would be certain as to when and where his duty would be carried out so as to minimise sharp practices.
“We will provide water and security lights at the market and befitting places of convenience. All these we hope to do in the interest of farmers and traders,” Moses said.
Undoubtedly, there wouldn’t have been the market without the farmers, even as the market has introduced a new paradigm in farming in the area. Before the market became a money spinner for the locals, the men would after preparing the fields, make heaps and leave the farm for women to tend. Today, the story has changed, as no man would abandon his farm for women anymore. This also accounts for why many men in the area have more than one wife and many children.