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Nigeria’s local wheat production: Senegal, Ethiopia hold lessons

Ukraine donates 25,000 tons of wheat to tackle Nigeria’s hunger crisis


Derivatives of wheat such as noodles, pasta, semolina, wheat meal, bread and flour-based confectioneries are culinary delights for millions of Nigerians, consumed in such large proportions that wheat is the largest food import in Nigeria.

Last year, Nigeria imported (at least) N1.29 trillion worth of wheat and in the first quarter of this year, N258.3 billion worth of wheat was imported, according to official data.

Yet, every grain of wheat imported into Nigeria can become an opportunity for wealth to be created locally, by empowering farmers to grow wheat in meeting the increasing local demand.

“As vital as wheat is, we cannot say with certainty the actual quantity of wheat produced in the country as conflicting figures were being published from different sources,” noted the National Bureau of Statistics in a 2021 report on wheat production in Nigeria.

It would later emerge, following its survey last year, that wheat production in Nigeria was 36,943.80 tonnes, a decrease of 23 percent from 60,000 tonnes as captured in the Agriculture Promotion Policy’s strategy document of 2016.

In that same year, demand was put at 4.7 million tonnes, and six years later, while demand has largely grown, production has in fact, declined.

In Senegal and Ethiopia, where development of varieties appropriate for those environments were done, and ensuring widespread adoption by farmers, the positive outcomes show Nigeria has a lot to gain by learning from them

In recent years, the Federal Government and private sector players have been trying to ramp up wheat production, and it becomes increasingly clear that only a concerted, multi-stakeholder approach can push Nigeria closer to self sufficiency.

Saving the trillions of naira that wheat importation could gulp in the coming years, and instead, putting this money in the hands of Nigerian farmers is possible.

As efforts by different stakeholders increase and begin to yield some results, Nigeria may benefit in adapting lessons from other countries that had similar challenges but have turned the situation around (in boosting wheat production).

As wheat importation continues to increase in Nigeria since its derivatives remain popular food choices among consumers, the question arises, what does a country do when it can’t get enough of something, yet produces so little of it?

In Africa, Nigeria can learn from Senegal and Ethiopia, two countries that have recorded significant successes in the pursuit of wheat production.

Once upon a similar time in Senegal

Wheat is typically a temperate crop, which could explain why much of it was traditionally not produced in Africa in large volumes, and more so, with less yields when produced.

However, in Senegal, scientists were able to develop heat tolerant varieties that changed the country’s narrative in wheat production.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization, noted in a report that the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) found through research that wheat is better adapted to the region of the Senegal River and better suited to resist the changing climates.

An innovation would later be proposed by Filippo Bassi, a plant breeding researcher, to develop top yielding durum wheat cultivars that can withstand the tropical temperatures more than 37⁰C. The success of the project, named ‘Deployment of Molecular Durum Breeding to the Senegal Basin: Capacity Building to Face Global Warming’ won it the 2017 Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security.

Some 400 potential varieties collected from 32 countries were tested for two years at two experimental farms in Mauritania and Senegal.

The outcome, according to ICARDA, was an identification of three new durum varieties that combine all required traits: yields above 3 tonnes per hectare with a top yield peak of 6 tonnes, growing in just 92 days, and excellent industrial quality of produced grains.

The high industrial quality of the grains meant they could be sold at the prevailing international price, opening up the local economy to more international trade, while helping to bridge local demand gap.

Finding a variety that could withstand the heat of the African savannah was achieved through a genome fingerprinting research project. Rather than go down a genetic modification route, ICARDA used advanced breeding techniques and its unique seedbank to combine characteristics of both modern and ancient strains.

In Ethiopia, a similar trend to achieve sufficiency

Last year, Ethiopia harvested 1.6 million tonnes of irrigated wheat from 405,000 hectares of land in the first round of cultivation.

In the second round, Ethiopia harvested 835,000 tonnes of irrigated wheat from 208,000 hectares of land. By contrast, three years earlier in 2018, the country cultivated only a mere 3,500 hectares, as disclosed in an article by Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s press secretary.

With the help of modern seeds, irrigation and mechanisation, the government made additional efforts to reap from Ethiopia’s vast land resources. To achieve desired results, the Ethiopian government realised that scale matters; the more farmers were able to adopt the new varieties of wheat seeds, planting them under best practises and management, the better for its objective of achieving sufficiency in wheat production.

The results, so far, show that this has been paying off.

In the past, Ethiopian governments deployed subsidy models to make wheat affordable.

The Ethiopian Government over several years, attempted structural interventions for the increase of local wheat production and better effectiveness and efficiency of its value chain. These included the establishment and recurrent strengthening of wheat research centres, both at central and local levels. The international purchase of fertilizers, pesticides, and their distribution to farmers at subsidized prices. The promotion of mechanisation (mainly ploughing, spraying, and harvesting). The multiplication and distribution of certified seed.

Other interventions were storing facilities and functional market information systems Tax exemption for the import of agroprocessing equipment like for milling, pasta making, and bakery.

However, by investing in development of improved varieties, and more importantly encouraging several thousands of farmers to adopt and cultivate those seeds, the country’s efforts over several decades have started to pay off. In Nigeria, similar (or better) results could be achieved.

India, Brazil hold lessons too

The challenges which have dragged production in Nigeria, including unfavourable climate, relatively high precipitation resulting in yield losses from disease and root problems, and poor quality of wheat varieties cultivated, were also some of the major challenges affecting India’s production of wheat, according to a KPMG report on Nigeria’s wheat value chain.

In 2021, India produced 109 million tonnes of wheat, a quantum leap from 6.5 million tonnes in 1950-51, when post-independence, it relied largely on importation.

To become self-sufficient in the production of wheat, the Government of India appointed a commission in 1961. The mandate of the commission was to assess the feasibility of increasing wheat productivity under prevailing Indian ecological conditions.

Key government interventions included: research and development involving introduction and massive importation of suitable wheat varieties; partnerships with other countries to test compatible disease resistant wheat varieties; declaration of minimum support price to encourage local farmers; construction of large grain handling facilities.

Read also:

Why gains of falling wheat prices elude Nigeria

Others were establishment of seed production chains, fertilizer factories and farm machinery units; increased public investment in irrigation and agricultural research amongst others.

Brazil, a country with similar ecological factors to Nigeria, has also been one of the major importers of wheat.

However, government support, in the form of aggressive wheat planting, minimum support prices, among others, had contributed to active growth and development in the country’s wheat growing sector.

Brazil produced 7.7 million tonnes of wheat in 2021, from 4.4 million tonnes in 2012, noted in KPMG’s report as the inception of active government intervention. Since then, and through interventions deployed, output has grown gradually over the years.

Nigeria’s cue to improve productivity

NBS’s survey, which was conducted across thirteen (13) states in northern Nigeria covering the known producing states, has shown Nigeria requires deliberate, and possibly new strategies to achieve sufficiency in wheat production.

Bassi, from the intervention in Senegal, is already involved in at least one project that aims to replicate that success story in Nigeria.

Last year, Olam Nigeria, through its wheat milling subsidiary, Crown Flour Mill (CFM) Limited, 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.

While the program has a 10-year plan to boost wheat production, in other countries where wheat production has seen significant growth (from Ethiopia, Senegal, to India and Brazil), all hands had to be on deck for the results to become possible; from private sector, to research bodies, foreign partners, and the government.

For Nigeria to record similar gains, it becomes expected that the country would adapt what has worked elsewhere, or at least, localising those elements that would be adaptable to the Nigerian reality.

With similar interventions that have been made in Senegal and Ethiopia, where development of varieties appropriate for those environments were done, and ensuring widespread adoption by farmers, the positive outcomes show Nigeria has a lot to gain by learning from them. In Africa, so far, both countries have shown it is possible to grow wheat productivity in leaps and bounds, and Nigeria can borrow a leaf from their approach and success stories.

This would, however, require Nigeria to develop and deploy a more strategic, deliberate, concerted and collaborative effort that would include all the key public and private sector stakeholders pushing Nigeria closer to self-sufficiency in local wheat production. As food prices continue to rise, the clock is ticking.