• Sunday, December 03, 2023
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Olam takes a shot at fixing Nigeria’s multi-billion wheat imports with seeds

Olam takes a shot at fixing Nigeria’s multi-billion wheat imports with seeds

Last year, 2020, Nigeria spent N747.5 billion importing wheat, and as of the second quarter of this year, 2021, N583 billion has been spent importing wheat, as shown by data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

Wheat importation has been on a consistent increase in Nigeria, as 2019 data even showed at least N401 billion worth of wheat was imported at the time, retaining its position as Nigeria’s highest agricultural import. In 2018, wheat importation gulped N362.4 billion, representing 42.5 percent of the N852 billion officially captured by NBS to have been spent importing agricultural goods.

As millions of people across the country witnessed varying levels of movement restrictions during the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, data from internet search giant, Google showed many Nigerians resorted to baking of bread and confectionaries, made of course, from wheat.

In the 30 days prior to May 4, 2020, the top trending search term on Google Nigeria was ‘how to make bread’. Out of the top ten queries pertaining to food, seven are derivatives of wheat-based flour, which is predominantly used in Nigeria.

The challenge is; Nigeria’s wheat production is currently estimated at about 300,000 metric tonnes, whereas demand is 5 million metric tonnes. Local production is only about six percent of the country’s rising demand, with imports filling the 94 percent gap with already scarce foreign exchange.

Getting Nigeria’s wheat production from ‘zero to hundred’ has been a challenge often spoken about, but hard to move towards the desired goal. In particular, farmers who cultivate report an average yield of 1.5 tonnes per hectare, and getting the right seeds to deliver the right yields and desirable quality has been a focus of discussions around improving productivity.

There are two main issues in Nigeria; the variety to grow and how to make sure that farmers grow them

“If you look at the rate of consumption per capita, we consume more wheat than rice in this country,” said Salim Muhammad, president, Wheat Farmers Association of Nigeria during a webinar by the Guild of Nigerian Agriculture Journalists (GNAJ).

“Every Nigerian household consumes bread, noodles, and pastas. But what is my country doing to produce enough wheat for the consumption locally in the country?” he asked.

Read also: Nigerians pay most for food since 1999

Fixing this productivity challenge, got more attention last month, when Olam Nigeria announced a N300 million investment to set up community seed enterprises to increase wheat production in Nigeria, in which heat-tolerant varieties are to be tried in boosting local production while creating economic opportunities for farmers.

Along with its subsidiary, Crown Flour Mill Limited (CFM), the N300 million (US $750,000) 10-year project was launched to set up community seed enterprises for Nigerian farmers to increase their production of wheat. This wheat value chain project, the company says will strengthen agricultural production in northern Nigeria’s wheat farming belt.

The project will trial new heat-tolerant varieties of wheat and improved agronomic practices using a participatory approach that directly engages farmers. It will also engage at least 10 female farmers’ associations to become true drivers of change for their communities by training women to lead community-based seed enterprises. These enterprises will produce and make available high value seed to farmers in their local communities.

The female farmers’ associations will be trained on the most advanced agronomic practices for wheat cultivation so these can provide valuable advice to local growers. Periodic feedback sessions will be scheduled between the women farmers, the research organisations and the value chain stakeholders on the status of cultivation to identify areas for change and innovation. This simple concept of “seeds and thoughts” is aimed at facilitating the adoption of new technologies and increasing economic opportunities for rural women.

“In order to ensure the long-term viability of the wheat sector in Nigeria, it is critical to identify and support the development of high-yielding local wheat varieties,” said Ashish Pande, managing director of CFM. “This project will further stimulate the federal government’s drive towards the attainment of economic growth, the country’s agricultural research capabilities, employment generation, community development and the economic empowerment of women in Nigeria.”

The investment according to Pande, is to complement the FG’s drive towards attainment of economic growth as well as empowerment of women and youth.

The wheat value-chain project is described as the outcome of extensive high-level consultations with key stakeholders, following the successful inaugural Olam Green Land Webinar Series held in March. It will involve a partnership with key stakeholders including the Lake Chad Research Institute (LCRI), and Dr Filippo Bassi, senior scientist, Durum Wheat Breeder of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

According to Bassi, the project is planned around ensuring availability of seeds to farmers. “Seed has been one of the major constraints of production in Nigeria; availability of quality and improved seeds through this project would spur increased production and reduce import dependency and ensure the attainment of national self sufficiency in wheat,” he said.

Kachalla Kyari Mala, principal research officer, Lake Chad Research Institute, who expressed the institute’s delight to be part of the intervention, noted it represents a laudable private sector financial support and contribution to all the work done and other ongoing research endeavours by the LCRI in the area of wheat development.

The “community-based or village-based seed enterprises” to be employed by Olam on this project is described as a scalable strategy developed originally for Ethiopia by ICARDA’s scientists, where it has shown great success. ICARDA has since expanded its application to the river systems of Sudan, Senegal and Mauritania. Filippo Bassi, who was also a recipient of the Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security in 2017 said; “The selection of female farmer associations as community enterprises is premised on the fact that investing in rural women has proven to yield nearly double the development outcomes than previously done so. Women farmers are conscientious with their use of income, deploying it wisely, re-investing it in innovations and seeking the betterment of the whole community. African women are the true glue that keep the community together.”

As Bassi explained, the project aims to reach 50,000 farmers cultivating at least one hectare, but this would still leave a substantial gap to be filled. According to him, getting seeds from research to farmers has been traditionally challenged but this approach will use a community-based approach to deliver seeds in small quantities, where they can be tested to determine which works best before extensive replication.

The project aims to put farmers at the centre of implementation, getting feedback to ensure seeds are deployed for best outcomes in any given locality.

“There are two main issues in Nigeria; the variety to grow and how to make sure that farmers grow them,” he said. “We will try to identify the most innovative farmers or groups that will be trained and made the drivers of change.”

When will Nigeria be self-sufficient in wheat production? The answer is not a straight one to give at the moment. However, Zakari Turaki, director of research at LCRI said, “the idea is to reduce by half the imports over the years and 20-30 years down the road we won’t be far from that.”

States found over time to be more favourable for wheat cultivation, about eight of which have been identified, are to be prioritised during implementation of the project.

He emphasised that the main objective of the project is to make seed available first and when there is seed, it is multiplied to deliver yields of up to 3.5 tonnes, “then we are going far, the ripple effect would determine what we would achieve,” he said.

The gap between production and demand is very wide and the journey, experts say needs to start somewhere. This initiative appears to be a move in that direction.

“We hope it is not only Olam’s initiative that will come to bear on increasing the yield of wheat in Nigeria,” Turaki said.

As noted by Google when the search trends were made public last year, “Forced to stay at home, and often unable to perform their usual work, many people across the globe, including Nigerians, have turned to cooking and baking as ways to pass the time – and keep themselves fed in the absence of restaurants and other vendors.”

The lockdowns may be over, but if this newfound pass time is to be sustained into the future along with the regular demands for wheat, which continue to rise yearly, the challenges being faced in the country’s wheat production will need to be addressed.

“This is a research project which if its works can become a template for government to replicate and promote on a much larger scale,” Bassi said.

The seed system, as experts have noted, is the backbone of any agricultural system, and to move the needle on wheat production in Nigeria, it remains the key.