Bread, pies, pasta and pastries - changing African diets, the result of urbanization, are driving a demand for wheat that is pushing up import bills and complicating food security.
New research suggests the potential for African farmers to help meet that demand has been underestimated: local producers in east and southern Africa may be growing only 10 to 25 percent of the wheat that is both biologically possible and economically profitable, overlooking a potential money-spinner and hedge against global food price shocks.
The research, by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known as CIMMYT) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), found that with the "proper use of fertilizer and other investments", 20 to 100 percent of farmlands in the 12 countries studied are ecologically suitable for profitable rain-fed wheat farming, at least according to advanced computer modelling.
The study, released at a five-day conference on wheat in Addis Ababa, demonstrates that three countries - Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda - have the best wheat potential, based on projections that take into account soil, production conditions and links to markets.
CIMMYT, the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, the African Union and other partners are expected to announce an initiative to boost wheat production at the conference.
One spur to domestic production is the size of the import bill: In 2012, African countries will spend roughly US$12 billion buying some 40 million tons of wheat from abroad, said CIMMYT.
"We are not advocating for growing wheat where good growing (climatic and soil) conditions do not exist, but rather focusing on improving conditions such as extension services, new improved varieties and application of fertilizers," said Hans-Joachim Braun, the head of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Programme.
By 2025, about 700 million people - more than half the current African population - will live in urban areas, and the time to plan for that demographic change is now, warned Bekele Shiferaw, the lead author of the CIMMYT-IFPRI study.
|Becoming self-sufficient in wheat does not automatically imply greater food security, which is about everyone being able to access quality food|
Demand for wheat has been growing rapidly - by around 45 percent between 2000-2009 - said Nicole Mason from Michigan State University (MSU) and the lead author of a new joint study by MSU and CIMMYT examining wheat consumption in sub-Saharan Africa.
“The demand for wheat is growing at a faster pace than rice, and it has been filling the cereal deficit in Africa for some years,” said Mason.
Wheat is still overshadowed by maize in most countries, particularly among the poor in Southern Africa. However, the demand for wheat is growing in urban centres, where people are developing an appetite for mass-produced, convenient foods containing processed wheat flour. Consumers, on average, spend more on wheat than on other cereals in the cities of Lusaka and Kitwe in Zambia, Maputo in Mozambique and Nairobi in Kenya, Mason’s study shows.
Bolstering food security
Countries like Zambia have already boosted wheat production and become self-sufficient, driven by demand and profit, said Davies Lungu, a plant breeder with the University of Zambia. “A metric ton of wheat sells at $350, while maize is around $150 per metric ton in Zambia.”
Becoming self-sufficient in wheat does not automatically imply greater food security, which is about everyone being able to access quality food, noted Mason.
But easing high import bills would improve the ability of countries and consumers to ride out price shocks, said CIMMYT’s Hodson.
Wheat, first cultivated in Mesopotamia (southern Turkey, Iraq and Syria) before spreading to North Africa and Ethiopia, is also much more resilient to extreme temperatures than other staples, Braun pointed out. “It is a good investment to make against climate change.”