• Sunday, May 26, 2024
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Agege bread to noodles: High wheat imports hurt naira, jobs

WBD 2022: The place of bread in feeding Nigeria’s growing population

Several years ago, Nigeria and Ethiopia were two African countries identified as long-term markets for imported wheat owing to their rapidly growing population and low local production.

Today, the difference between both countries is that Ethiopia is ramping up wheat production to transform itself from a net importer of the grain into a regional breadbasket that produces enough to export to its neighbours.

Nigeria continues to increase its importation of wheat as its derivatives remain popular food choices among consumers amid the surge in the prices of close substitutes – garri and rice.

Data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) show that the country imported N1.2 trillion worth of wheat in 2023 as against N975.8 billion in 2022, a 20 percent increase in the value.

Going by the $242.3 yearly average price of wheat per tonne in 2023, according to the data from the International Grain Council and based on an average exchange rate of N635 to a dollar, Nigeria imported a record 7.84 million metric tonnes (MT) of the grains in 2023 (N1.2 trillion billion divided by N635 is equal to $1.9 billion. To get the volume of imports for the period, $1.9 billion is divided by $242, which is equal to 7.84 million MT).

The inability of the country to boost its wheat production over the years and reduce its imports is putting more pressure on its currency amid foreign exchange scarcity and importing jobs that would have been created if it had a thriving wheat industry, experts say.

“If the government is truly serious about reducing FX pressure and strengthening the naira while creating jobs, it must work to boost local wheat production as the grain accounts for the bulk of our food imports,” AfricaFarmer Mogaji, chief executive officer of X-Ray Consulting Limited, said.

“We cannot afford to import so much wheat any longer and this must change. Ethiopia and Senegal are clear examples of how we can scale our production and we must learn from them,” he said.

According to him, every grain of wheat imported into Nigeria can become an opportunity for wealth and job creation locally, by empowering farmers to grow wheat to meet the increasing local demand and growing a thriving wheat industry.

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 make wheat the largest food import in the country.

The country imports 98 percent of its wheat needs and the grain is the third most imported goods in 2023, accounting for four percent of total imports, mainly purchased from the United States, Latvia, Canada, Russia and Lithuania. Latvia, Russia and Lithuania are countries known for producing poor-quality wheat.

Despite being a major market for a species of wheat known as ‘hard red winter’, the country only produces 36,943.80MT, according to a 2021 survey conducted by the NBS. This shows a decrease of 23 percent from 60,000 tonnes as captured in the Agriculture Promotion Policy’s strategy document of 2016.

In 2016, demand was put at 4.7 million tonnes, and eight years later, production has declined while demand has increased.

According to experts, there is also a growing demand for soft red winter for biscuits and cookies; hard white wheat for bread and noodles, and durum wheat for pasta in Nigeria.

Wheat production in Africa’s biggest economy has remained relatively low as a lack of modern agronomic practices, unavailability of improved seeds, and high rate of insecurity across major wheat-growing states continue to hamper the production of the commodity.

The national average yield for wheat remains at 1MT per hectare, data from the Food and Agriculture Organization shows.

Musa Shehu, national president of the Wheat Farmers Association of Nigeria, said the domestic wheat production has suffered from insecurity, poor implementation of interventions for farmers and the perception that the country cannot competitively produce wheat.

He said most of the intervention in the sector to boost local production has been highly politicised and poorly implemented, noting it has made it unable to produce meaningful results.

“We must learn from other African countries like Ethiopia and Sudan to scale our wheat production. We must change our approach to implementation to have real results.”

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 lower yields when produced.

However, in Ethiopia, scientists developed heat-tolerant varieties that changed the country’s narrative in wheat production.

Nigeria’s northern region where wheat is mainly cultivated has the same climatic conditions as Ethiopia. Both countries boast fertile land and exportable cash crops.

Ethiopia’s success in boosting its wheat production and attaining self-sufficiency in wheat production through the provision of improved seed varieties and investments in research, ensuring farmers’ adoption of good agronomic practices and large-scale use of irrigation and mechanisation holds many lessons for Nigeria in reducing importation and employment generation.

The East African country boosted its total wheat production from 6.86 million tonnes in 2020/21 to 8.2 million tonnes in 2021/2022, data from Ethiopia’s Agricultural Ministry shows.

It has not imported commercial wheat since 2022 as efforts have been taken in the past three years to reduce its import volume of the grain.

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 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.

While Nigeria last year collected a loan of $160 million from the African Development Bank to scale local wheat production, time will tell whether any meaningful gains are made as previous wheat development investments have failed to yield results.