African countries including Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda have soils and conditions suitable to boost wheat output and cut the continent’s import dependency, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center said.
Eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa each have at least 500,000 hectares (1.24 million acres) of land available for competitive and profitable wheat production without irrigation, according to a study by the center, known by its acronym Cimmyt.
Wheat consumption in Africa is climbing as diets change with growing urbanization, according to El Batan, Mexico-based Cimmyt. African countries are forecast to spend about $12 billion this year to import 40 million metric tons of wheat.
“We would like to alert the world that there is potential for wheat production in Africa,” Hans-Joachim Braun, director of Cimmyt’s global wheat program, said by telephone. “We would like to advise governments where to produce wheat.”
Cimmyt used computer models to identify farmland ecologically suitable for wheat farming. Simulated wheat yields were found to be highest in highland-production systems in eastern and central Africa, including Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar and Uganda, the research center wrote in an e-mailed statement.
“In the tropical highlands, wheat does very well,” Braun said. “You have a lot of radiation and you have cool nights, which are very important.”
Africa accounts for 15 percent of world wheat demand, according to Cimmyt. The continent’s farmers produce only 44 percent of the wheat consumed locally, compared with 70 percent in the 1960s, according to the study.
“If Africa does not push for wheat self-sufficiency, it could face more hunger, instability and even political violence, as bread riots in North Africa showed in recent years,” Bekele Shiferaw, one of the study’s authors, was cited as saying in the statement.
Fertilizer requirements are the biggest bottleneck to lifting African crop productivity, according to Braun. Many soils in the country lack nutrients, and will require either organic or chemical fertilizer to boost yields, he said.
African fertilizer prices are “extremely expensive” compared to those in international markets, partially because of transport costs, as well as a lack of beneficial taxation rates or subsidies, Braun said.
“Eventually a fertilizer supply chain needs to be set up,” Braun said. “The lowest yields are obviously when you don’t apply fertilizer, but even then countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya and Burundi would still be competitive.”
Wheat varieties that are grown in Kenya and Ethiopia could be used in neighboring countries including Rwanda, while South Africa would also be a “good source” of genetic material, the Cimmyt director said.
“We don’t want to force wheat into Africa, we want to ensure that where wheat production starts, it’s economically viable,” Braun said.