Donald Zulu

Towards the domestication of the local wild edible yam (Dioscorea hirtiflora) in Zambia

My research originated from a preliminary study on underutilised roots and tubers that I helped carry out at the Copperbelt University in Zambia where I used to lecture. My research follows on from this, looking specifically at the Dioscorea hirtiflora, a species widely utilised for food and income in Southern Zambia, but the local wild Dioscorea species has yet to be cultivated.

I have divided this study into three thematic areas: socio-economic, agronomy and molecular biology of Dioscorea hirtiflora.

For the socio-economic aspect I will be undertaking household surveys with key stakeholders along the value chain of this species to determine its contribution to livelihoods. Once I’ve understood how it’s societal impact, I will then determine the best agronomic practice for future production or cultivation of this Dioscorea.

Finally I will evaluate its genetic variation using published microsatellite libraries for other yam species in order to establish where centres of genetic diversity are distributed across Zambia. This will help me to understand its genetic variation, as well as allowing for me to pinpoint those locations for Dioscorea which should be protected from genetic erosion during the domestication process.

My research techniques will be tested at the University of Reading to practice and understand the methodology I will be using, before being taken out into the field in Zambia.

I hope to carry on with my research to help contribute to the development of value chains of local indigenous neglected and underutilised species, also known as orphan crops. My current research has suggested that they could prove vital to the agricultural industry in the future, helping to diversify and adapt smallholder agricultural systems to climate change. This could prove vital to enhancing the quality and yield of food, as well as providing income security for those in communities located in developing countries.

This research is conducted in association with Plant and Environmental Sciences Research Group – Copperbelt University, Zambia.

Thanks to the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission for supporting this project.

Dr Alastair Culham and Professor Richard Ellis

Expected Completion Date:
June 2020

Why did you choose Reading?:
I chose Reading due to its strong reputation as a research university, especially for Agricultural topics. Looking round at the agriculture facilities I could see why they were the best in the UK, and this gave me great confidence that I was going to be mentored by some of the world’s best in the field. This was key for me, as being able to have highly prestigious academic supervisors would assure me that my work was of the highest quality and enable me to tap into a wealth of knowledge and experience.



Zulu, D., Ellis, R. H. and Culham, A. (2019) Collection, consumption and sale of lusala (Dioscorea hirtiflora), a wild yam, by rural households in the Southern Province of Zambia. Economic Botany, 73 (1). pp. 47-63. ISSN 0013-0001 doi:


Zulu, D., Ellis, R. and Culham, A. (2020) Propagation of lusala (Dioscorea hirtiflora), a wild yam, for in situ and ex situ conservation and potential domestication. Experimental Agriculture. ISSN 0014-4797 doi: