• Saturday, July 20, 2024
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Examining Nigeria’s quest for wheat, self-sufficiency and food security

Empty plates and rising prices: Can Nigeria find a way out of the food crisis?

Over the past few years, wheat has taken on considerable significance in the Nigerian economy. The wheat industry in the country has become an integral part of everyday living, producing flour, through the flour milling companies, used for staple foods like bread, pasta, pastries, cakes, pies, rolls, and much more.

To be sure, wheat meals have always been a part of the Nigerian dining table since independence, particularly bread. The past two decades have however seen an unprecedented rise in the demand for wheat-based foods by Nigerians, driven mainly by the country’s young population, the convenience and low cost of such foods. Nigeria is the second-largest consumer of wheat in sub-Saharan Africa, behind Ethiopia. According to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the “national requirement for wheat is 5.7 million metric tons annually, while our production is 420,000 metric tons.”

Clearly, local production of wheat at 420,000 metric tons is significantly lower than the demand, hence, the almost total dependence on imported wheat to meet the country’s demand. Foreign trade data released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) for 2021 also confirmed that the country produced less than 1 percent of total yearly requirement. As a result, 99 percent of wheat requirement in 2021 was imported at a cost of N1.3 trillion, NBS figures showed.

The Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) Statistical Bulletin in 2020 showed that Nigeria spent $6 billion (over N2trn) in five years (2016–2020) to import wheat. The agric minister, Mohammad Abubakar, had tagged the situation as “worrisome and unsustainable for a crop that could be produced locally.” It is certainly worrisome that almost 10 percent of the country’s food import bill is spent on wheat. The ongoing Russia and Ukraine war, between two of the biggest producers of wheat in the world, has further placed Nigeria in a precarious position as volatile wheat prices continue to drain the nation’s foreign reserves.

The above figures could rise even higher in the coming years as demand continues to grow. A projection in 2014 by the then minister of agriculture, Akinwumi Adesina, put the country’s wheat demand at around 10 million metric tons by 2030. “By the year 2030, Nigeria will be importing 10 million metric tons of wheat every year,” Adesina had said.

However, determined to reverse the growing import bill for wheat, the Federal Government has continued to institute policies aimed at encouraging local wheat production. The most recent was the introduction of a National Wheat Strategy Document in conjunction with the African Development Bank. Before the latest policy, there was the Accelerated Wheat Production Programme in the 1980s; the 15 percent levy on imported wheat in 2012; the Wheat Transformation Agenda; the Growth Enhancement Support Scheme; the Anchor Borrowers’ Scheme, and the Agricultural Promotion Policy, among others.

These policies were targeted at addressing the key challenges for the poor local production, which include shortage of improved seed varieties, poor irrigation infrastructure, high production cost, and weak capital by the largely artisanal wheat farmers. In addressing these challenges, production is expected to increase, earnings boosted, and competitiveness of local production enhanced.

But, to achieve real progress in local wheat production, experts have identified the imperatives of robust public private partnerships to drive growth. And the government has shown willingness to adopt the PPP approach. For instance, the government had in partnership with the Flour Milling Association of Nigeria (FMAN), the umbrella body for flour millers in the country, introduced programmes such as the farmers support services to boost wheat cultivation. Encouraged by the government’s drive in the wheat value chain, private sector players have heeded the government’s call “to begin to invest in wheat production.”

Crown Flour Mill (CFM), a subsidiary of Olam Agri, for instance, took a bold step in 2021 when it introduced what it called ‘Seeds for the Future’ programme, its signature N300 million wheat value chain development projects. For the project, CFM partnered the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), and the Lake Chad Research Institute (LCRI). “A critical decision for Nigeria is the choice of wheat species to promote,” Filippo Bassi, the project consultant, and professional seed breeder from ICARDA had said at the launch of the project.

So, essentially, the project was, among others, expected as trial of new heat-tolerant varieties of wheat and to improve agronomic practices using a participatory approach that directly engages farmers, particularly female farmers. The programme is quite unique considering that it has a three-prong approach to addressing the wheat supply side challenge that has seemed intractable in the country’s wheat value chain. The three key areas targeted by the project are input or seed, the personnel or the farmers, and the infrastructure.

Read also: 5 things to know about IMF’s Food Shock Window programme

A year after its introduction, the Seeds for the Future project remains on course to transform the country’s wheat industry. The first-year report of the project, which was unveiled recently during the third edition of the agribusiness stakeholders’ consultative forum, the Olam Agri Greenland Webinar Series, showed huge promise. Most importantly, it was able to attain its key milestone of production of 10kg of pre-multiplication wheat seed varieties that suit the unique local topography and climate.

“We have made quite an impressive stride on the Seeds for the Future programme going by the first-year report,” said Ashish Pande, the country head for Olam Agri Nigeria. It is indeed a big stride. “The 10kg pre-multiplication wheat seed varieties will be planted next season in 1,000 square meter plots at the Azumbu farm research station in Jigawa,” Bassi revealed. As backup, “a subset will be planted also during the rainy season in August.”

And on the human side, the project has utilised the key network of community-based farmers’ association by engaging 10 female smallholder wheat farmers’ cooperative unions. These farmers would be part of the seed trialling and multiplication efforts. Thus far, hundreds of artisanal farmers, particularly female wheat farmers, have benefited from the enlightenment and capacity building part of the programme on improved agronomic practices. The project is well on course to achieve a key objective of engaging at least 10,000 farmers yearly, who will act as multiplicators for the new seeds on about 100,000ha of land by 2030.

To underscore the momentous nature of the project, the Boston Consulting Group, a global consulting firm, recently showcased the Seeds for the Future project at the United Nations Climate Change Week in Gabon as a climate-smart, innovative solution to Nigeria’s food security aspirations and Africa’s climate challenges.

Indeed, considering Olam Agri’s robust commitment to research, capacity building, and infrastructure upgrade to uncover new value in the wheat value chain, the country can attain, within a short time, very high local wheat production levels, and finally become self-sufficient in the crop. This optimism may not be misplaced as Pande assured that Olam Agri will continue to “inject human, financial, and technical resources into the programme to ensure we meet our targets and derive the best results in the years ahead.”

Perhaps, the huge promise the project holds for Nigeria’s food security drive as well as the desire for a total revival of the agriculture sector remains the opportunity to replicate the template with other crops across the entire agricultural value chain.

Awelewa, a lecturer , writes from Lagos