by Katherine Graham

Demand for wheat increases

Wheat is fast becoming the food of choice in Southern Africa

The demand for wheat production is increasing

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT, says demand for wheat is growing faster than for any other food crop in sub-Saharan Africa.

In an October 2012 report, the centre says in order to import 40 million tonnes of wheat a year, sub-Saharan Africa spends R110-billion hard currency which it can scarcely afford.

The report examines 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.

Due to favourable rainfall patterns, 20% to 100% of the farmland in these countries is suitable for profitable wheat farming, the study asserts.

With Africa’s urban population forecast to grow 300% in the next 40 years, wheat is becoming the food of choice, rivalling maize as consumers’ number one cereal crop.

The improved affordability of wheat products, population growth and rising incomes are key drivers in wheat’s rising popularity. As agricultural expert Nicole Mason of Michigan State University said on a Voice of America broadcast late last year, “As women are working more outside of their home, they have less time to prepare food and they seek convenience foods that are quicker to prepare. Bread and pasta are key convenience foods.”

Maize still farmers’ top pick

Yet despite the growing demand for wheat, maize remains the crop that most small-scale farmers prefer growing.

Paul Bertels, of the National Corn Growers’ Association in the US, explains maize’s appeal:

“Wheat is a temperate grass, whereas maize is a tropical grass. Many parts of Africa are either tropical or arid. Even though maize is tropical in nature, it has been bred to be high yielding in temperate locations.”

Dr Wynand van der Walt, of FoodNCropBio Consulting Services, concurs. “Maize is basi- cally an easier food crop with more uses,” he says. “You can eat it fresh from the plant and use the leftovers for cattle grazing or use the grain for home beer brewing or as feedstock in brewing sorghum beer, plus milling the grain for porridge or poultry feed. Much of this can be done by hand.”

By contrast, he says, wheat is susceptible to a range of rust fungi that need to be contained by chemical spraying for which subsistence farmers do not have money.

“Under these circumstances, wheat produc- tion is riskier than maize.” Others point out that growing wheat is not as profitable as the trusted staple, maize.

“Figures vary significantly because the prof- itability of maize and wheat farming is highly dependant on market prices, yields and input costs, but at the moment the profit margins of growing maize are more favourable than wheat,”saysProfessorHermanvanSchalkwyk of the North-West University. “In some cases, cultural preferences also play a decisive role.”

Improving wheat’s prospects in Africa

Experts agree that expanding wheat produc- tion on the continent will require a greater level of support for farmers. “Several things areneededtoboostyields,”commentsBertels. “Firstly, there needs to be more research and the adoption of biotechnology; secondly, farmers require greater access to inputs, primarily fertiliser and to a lesser extent irriga- tion.” However,hecautionsthatgovernments should not directly subsidise these products because that would distort the law of dimin- ishing returns.

Van Schalkwyk argues that by extending the area under sustainable land management and havingreliablewatercontrolsystems,wheat yields can be boosted. “Building up soil fer- tility and the moisture-holding capacity of agricultural soils and rapidly increasing the area under irrigation, especially small-scale irrigation, will not only provide farmers with opportunities to raise output on a sustainable basis, but will also contribute to the reliability offoodsupplies,”hesays.

“Without the introduction of new varieties with higher yield potential and improved resistance to pests and diseases, necessary for reducing production cost per tonne, wheat will remain an orphan crop,” notes Van der Walt. He believes that governments can help farmers by subsidising good quality seed.

“In the Southern African Development Community, the initiative to harmonise seed laws and regulations, including plant variety protection in the form of plant breeders’rights, is now in its 25th year,” he says.

“What has been a small step at national level for a great many developing nations should not be seen by African governments asrequiringagiantleapformankind.Oneonly has to observe the agricultural revolutions in Latin America, India, China and Asia-Pacific.”

 Other improvements to aid wheat production include upgrading infrastructure such as rail and road, as well as storage and beneficiation, and farmer extension.

“Roads, storage, markets, packaging and handling systems, and input supply networks should be improved to raise the competitive- ness of local production vis-à-vis imports and export markets,” says Van Schalkwyk.

“Food storage and its protection from mildew and pests are of critical importance.” Authorities also have an important role to play.“Governments should support the establishment of a commercial agricultural industry,” proposes Van der Walt. “Commercial farming facilitates the development of an input supply sector, a storage and grain distribution network, trade businesses, while creating job opportunities. Its main impact is development of food security at a national level.”

Poor technology remains a major hurdle. “Several factors, including the limited use of irrigation and other inputs, undercut crop and livestock yields,” notes Van Schalkwyk. “There is a need to improve small farmers’ access to technology. This can play a major role in increasing food availability close to where it is needed most, raising rural incomes, expanding employment opportunities and contributing to export growth.”

Despite these obstacles, there is reason for optimism. “In a number of African countries, some of these improvements are underway, but it needs to be speeded up,” concludes Van der Walt.

“The world is looking to Africa as the next food basket. Let us make it attractive for them and they will invest,”hesays.


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