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Boosting Africa's Wheat Production

Experts say sub-Saharan Africa can be a major wheat producer. Credit: CIMMYTExperts say sub-Saharan Africa can be a major wheat producer. Credit: CIMMYT
Experts say sub-Saharan Africa can be a major wheat producer. Credit: CIMMYT
Experts say sub-Saharan Africa can be a major wheat producer. Credit: CIMMYT
Joe DeCapua
Agricultural experts are meeting in Addis Ababa (10/8-12) to discuss ways of making sub-Saharan Africa a major wheat producer. The region traditionally has played a small role in wheat production, but that could change in the coming years.

Maize is currently king among cereal crops in sub-African Africa, while wheat is the most important crop in North Africa. Wheat production fell sharply in the sub-Saharan region during the 1980s as food aid rose and international prices fell.

Hans Joachim Braun is one of the experts attending the Wheat for Food Security Conference in Ethiopia.

“Wheat was always a commodity crop in North Africa. North Africa was the grain basket for the Roman Empire. And wheat production and domestication started in North Africa, Turkey, Iraq. So for traditional reasons wheat was always there,” he said.

Braun is director of the Global Wheat Program of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT. He said that maize became very popular in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Maize was only introduced a few hundred years ago into Africa. But maize, of course, does very well in Africa and so it developed into the most important stable there.”

Some attempts were made in the 1960s to grow wheat in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa and Zimbabwe. However, the dumping of cheap wheat on the market by the U.S. and Europe made it economically unsustainable. What’s more, Africa’s wheat farms were often far from populations centers. A lack of transportation infrastructure added to the obstacles. Also, the tropical lowlands were not suitable for wheat production.

So why make a major effort now to create a major wheat industry?

Braun said, “In the last four years we have seen three major price hikes where the wheat price and other staple prices exploded. And that puts a big, big bill on countries, which are depending on wheat imports, and Africa is the biggest wheat importer.”

He added that the demand for wheat in sub-Saharan Africa is growing faster than any other commodity, adding there are two main reasons for that.

“With higher income people would like to have more diversified food. But that is possibly not the most important one. The most important one is that there is a tremendous migration of in particular male labor to the cities. And wheat products are convenient food because you can easily buy it. It’s easy to process and you also can store it for a few days, which is different from some of the maize and rice products,” he said.

There are three potential problems for growing more wheat on the continent: climate change, disease and pests. However, Braun says climate change, with its increased carbon dioxide, should not have a major effect on wheat. In fact, he said, it could help wheat grow in rain-fed regions. As for disease and pests, experts recommend growing more resistant varieties to deal with such things as stem rust.

“There is a much better strategy to grow resistant varieties in East Africa than to argue that an expansion of wheat would be problematic. Because these farmers grow wheat anyway and at present they grow mostly susceptible cultivars. So if we could establish breeding programs, which provide the farmers with wheat varieties, which have durable rust resistance, that would be a much better strategy for farmers in Africa -- but possibly maybe even more important considering the global status of wheat for the world,” he said.

Rail and road transportation would have to be improved so wheat could be moved in volume to large city markets.

Braun said Nigeria is one country eager to grow wheat.

“The minister of agriculture has declared that Nigeria would like to be self-sufficient for wheat production within the next six to eight years. And Nigeria is the biggest wheat importer in sub-Saharan Africa. And historically, Nigeria was producing wheat in the 60s and 70s, but then this industry was basically killed when the very cheap and subsidized wheat was made available and exported to Africa,” he said.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center estimates sub-Saharan Africa will spend $18 billion this year to import 40 million tons of wheat. The center’s new report outlines the viability of wheat production in 12 countries: Angola, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar and Mozambique, as well as Rwanda, Tanzania, the DRC, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

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