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Demand for Wheat Growing in Sub-Saharan Africa

A wheat field in Ethiopia
A wheat field in Ethiopia

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From VOA Learning English, this is the AGRICULTURE REPORT in Special English.

Agricultural experts met in Ethiopia last week to discuss ways to help sub-Saharan Africa become a major producer of wheat. The area traditionally produced little wheat.

Currently, maize -- or corn -- is the top cereal crop in countries south of the Sahara. In North Africa, wheat is the most important crop. Wheat production fell sharply in sub-Saharan countries during the nineteen eighties.

Hans Joachim Braun is director of the Global Wheat Program of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

“Wheat was always a commodity crop in North Africa. North Africa was the grain basket for the Roman Empire. And wheat production and domestication started in North Africa, Turkey, Iraq. So for traditional reasons, wheat was always there.”

In the nineteen sixties, attempts were made to grow wheat in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa and Zimbabwe. But those countries found it was less costly to import wheat from Europe and the United States.

Another problem is that Africa’s wheat farms were often far from population centers. There also were transportation issues. And some lowlands were not a good place to grow wheat.

Hans Joachim Braun says now is a good time to increase wheat production.

“In the last four years we have seen three major price hikes, where the wheat price and other staple process exploded. And that puts a big, big bill on countries which are depending on wheat imports, and Africa is the biggest wheat importer.”

He also says demand for wheat in sub-Saharan Africa is growing faster than for any other crop. There are two main reasons for that.

“With higher income people would like to have more diversified food. But that is possible not the most important one. The most important one is that there is a tremendous migration of in particular male labor to the cities. And wheat products are convenient food because you can easily buy it. It’s easy to process and you also can store it for a few days, which is different from some of the maize and rice products.”

There are three possible challenges for growing more wheat in Africa: climate change, disease and pests, like insects. Mr. Braun says rising temperatures should not have a major effect on wheat. In fact, he says, it could help wheat grow in areas with high rainfall totals. As for fighting disease and pests, experts suggest growing more resistant crops.

In addition, railroads and roads would have to be improved so large amounts of wheat could be moved to large markets.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center estimates that sub-Saharan Africa will import forty million tons of wheat this year. Those imports are expected to cost eighteen billion dollars.