Can Africa Expand its Own Wheat Growing Potential?

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A woman preparing her maize for storage after harvest.
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Maize has long been considered the most important cereal crop grown in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet demand for wheat a crop that proved to be economically unfeasible for African farmers just a few decades ago is now growing faster than for any other food crop. In 2012, African countries will spend about USD 18 billion on importing some 40 million tons of wheat particularly for consumers living in cities. Researchers will convene the first conference ever to explore where increased wheat growing in Africa is biologically feasible, economically profitable and internationally competitive as a hedge against food insecurity, political instability and price shocks.

Wheat production in sub-Saharan Africa plummeted in the 1980s after the influx of food aid and low prices on the international market made growing the crop unprofitable for African farmers. At the same time, the focus of international development shifted to other crops such as maize and cassava. In North Africa, wheat is a primary crop and food for many, yet nations in the region import upwards of USD 7 billion in wheat grain each year. Changing demographics, burgeoning demand for wheat, and the volatility of food prices since 2007 have led agricultural experts from breeders and economists to agriculture ministers and donors to re-think wheat in Africa. Among the topics to be addressed at the conference to be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 8-12 October will be a landmark report outlining the viability of wheat growing across twelve countries: Angola, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The conference is being organized by the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), the African Union, WHEAT (the CGIAR research program), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

The Wheat for Food Security in Africa conference topics will include:

  • Africa’s food security and the changing demand for wheat over the coming decades;
  • Biological yield potential in the various eco-regions of sub-Saharan Africa;
  • Boosting yields and harvests in North African nations;
  • Limitations posed by pests and diseases, temperature, rainfall and soils on wheat production in Africa;
  • Potential for profitable wheat production in Africa;
  • The strategic importance of wheat for food security and political stability in sub-Saharan Africa;
  • Assuring the availability of wheat at affordable prices;
  • Ability of wheat in Africa to cope with climate change; and
  • Major constraints (policy, institutional issues, infrastructure – road and market access, etc.) on wheat production in Africa.

Continued African reliance on wheat imports is a major challenge as urban population growth is forecast to increase by 300 percent by 2050 and food prices continue to rise globally. Foods that are driving the demand for wheat in Africa include bread, pasta, cereals, chapatti and mandazi in eastern Africa, as well as flatbreads and couscous in North Africa. Accounting for a fifth of humanity’s food, wheat is the primary source of protein in the developing world.

About CIMMYT
Headquartered in Mexico, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym, CIMMYT) is a not-for-profit agriculture research and training organization. The center works to reduce poverty and hunger by sustainably increasing the productivity of maize and wheat in the developing world. CIMMYT maintains the world’s largest maize and wheat seed bank and is best known for initiating the Green Revolution, which saved millions of lives across Asia and for which CIMMYT’s Dr. Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR Consortium and receives support from national governments,

foundations, development banks, and other public and private agencies.