Yam On

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Yams are a main Jamaican export—and the carb-loading superpowers of these ruddy tubers have obviously incited international intrigue. Yam exporter Taji Alleyne proves that just three years into the business he’s got the chops to build a complicated operation—with moving parts ranging from donkeys to drug inspectors. Here’s the story, from field-to-shelf.

“Most people contract a middleman, but I decided to set up right in the middle of the yam belt,” Taji says as we kick back in his Kingston apartment on a very stormy night. We’re talking about the parish of Trelawny, where tourism is scarce and nature reigns for limitless acres. Taji makes the 3.5-hour drive all the time, but step one is to make arrangements with multiple farmers to fulfill an order of 40,000lbs. Second, he drives out to wait at a roadside depot for them to emerge from deep in the fields, with donkeys schlepping their promised goods.

After on-the-spot selection of the crop’s crème and cutting the ends, the yams are trucked to a packaging facility down the road to be weighed, heartily washed and dried. Then the cut ends are treated, they’re packed with kaya dust for protection, inspected by officials for proper prep—and trucked again to be loaded at the Kingston harbor. A shipping container is fully refrigerated and carries 1,150 boxes that weigh 40lbs each¬—and are worth a healthy US $35K.

“When it works,” Taji says, “you can make good money, but when it doesn’t, you lose big.” It’s all a game against the clock, with set-in-stone weekly ship times and optimum shelf life ticking. Potential disasters abound: “One time a farmer didn’t have all his yams because his truck broke. But I saw four trucks full of fresh yams pull up and I ran over. I negotiated to take them for $5/pound more. Yams are everyone’s business there,” Taji says with a smile. Another time, a contraband inspector made him unload every single yam from a container at the dock.

Nevertheless, he runs at it. Taji’s self-penned tagline? Exotic food products from the island of champions. Nuff said.

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