In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced economies across the world, including Nigeria, to totally shut down commercial and social activities. A consequence of that was financial losses for businesses, which cascaded to the workforce, with many losing jobs or income. Local households’ income levels expectedly tumbled. Providing consistent, adequate nourishment for the family during that period also became a big struggle for many homes.
Amid the anxiety by breadwinners on how to cater for their homes, one of the top statements searched for on Google, a top search engine, was ‘how to bake bread’. That much was confirmed in a recent editorial published by a leading Nigerian newspaper.
Why the desire to learn bread making, a food derived from wheat, by households? The answer is simple. People had to get creative and innovative in their thinking and approach to catering to and meeting their household’s dietary needs. Foodstuff witnessed a steep price increase as a result of the impact of the pandemic on food production and the impact was far-reaching.
A recent survey conducted by Olam to evaluate the impact of the outbreak on the African farming communities, smallholder farmers on the continent showed vulnerabilities to the shocks and aftereffects of the global disruptions on agricultural value chains. The survey report revealed that 68 per cent of smallholder farmers reported a sharp reduction in their income as compared to before Covid.
The survey was carried out across 19 countries among 3,432 farmers globally, among whom 1,663 were smallholder farmers located in 7 African countries. More importantly, most of these farmers were into the production of food crops.
According to the report, 55 per cent of farmers surveyed said they had produced less on their farms in the past season; 47 per cent said farm inputs like seeds and fertilisers, were less available in the local market; 42 per cent said it was harder to find labourers; and 55 per cent said they had less money to afford farm inputs or hired labour.
The unparalleled disruptions of the pandemic to Africa ricocheted from farm to fork. It drove the region into its first recession in 25 years; reducing incomes and increasing poverty and food insecurity. Although the global negative economic effects of the pandemic have started to ease off in the big economies in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. It is not so for Africa’s emerging economies, 2021 has been another trying year for the continent.
Taking Nigeria as a case study, over the last decade the country has witnessed a steady increase in the consumption of wheat staples. However, the country’s current local wheat production level stands at 60,000 metric tons. This already low cultivation level was also impacted by COVID shocks which impacted crops like Corn so badly that there was a massive shortage of supply in the country. This increased the gap between supply and demand to over 4.9 million metric tons. With a current consumer demand of about 5 million metric tons (Figure 1), this gap is a cause of deep concerns for the country’s food security needs. It puts local consumers at the mercy of uncertain global events, like global wheat price and international shipping price inflation.
A group of Nigerian farmers were recently quoted as saying that there are around 650,000 hectares of farmland available for the cultivation of wheat and that human resources are also not lacking. The reality, however, is that the total land area devoted to wheat farming in Nigeria is small. In 2011, when Nigeria recorded peak production levels at 165,000 tons, the harvested land area was 128,992 hectares. (Figure 2)
The major challenges confronting the wheat production sector is the dearth of improved and high-yielding seed varieties, farmers’ limited understanding of the available seed varieties, insufficient funding systems, lack of an overarching strategy for wheat development, and the poor state of farming infrastructures such as irrigation facilities, land preparation equipment, and sprayers.
A major intervention is critical to address the continuous slide in the local wheat production value chain. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD) continue to push for the release of improved seed varieties to smallholder wheat farmers and an upgrade of farming infrastructure
The CBN and FMARD wheat value chain intervention programmes are commendable. Encouraging a deeper partner collaboration and further investment in research will no doubt address persisting problems in the value chain and enhance the efforts of the government agencies. This strategic direction is being pursued by some public agencies and private firms. One private firm that is leading that charge is Olam, an agribusiness conglomerate.
The firm, earlier this month, announced a N300 million, 10-year community-based seed enterprise to stimulate new growth in the wheat milling value chain. The agribusiness firm is set to hold its second Green Land webinar on November 24, 2021, to generate fresh discourse around the wheat value chain development programme. The webinar is expected to provide interesting insights into the firm’s approach to identifying the best bet seed varieties and seed multiplication strategy in its “Seeds for the Future Project”.
The project is essentially an expansive scalable research programme aimed at achieving sustainable growth in local wheat production. The major components of the project are the identification of the right seed variety suitable for local cultivation; engagement of women wheat farmers’ cooperatives; and the application of the best agronomic practices for the variety and the topography. Thereby, allowing Nigeria to scale capacity systematically across the wheat farming belt of the country. (Figure 3)
The aspiration of all stakeholders is growth for the value chain and efforts are currently geared towards this sole objective. In March 2021, Olam hosted the inaugural edition of its Green Land Webinar series where it convened key stakeholders to have useful conversations around improving local wheat production.
Olam is however not alone in this pursuit to address the existing challenges in the country’s wheat value chain, the CBN organised the wheat conference and stakeholder engagement that was held in Abuja, in October 2021.
The second edition of the Olam webinar is expected to, among other objectives, provide an interesting insight into the prospect of attaining national wheat production self-sufficiency, and the hopes of the millions of households that keep searching for better ways to feed members, as the viral search for ‘how to bake bread’ in May 2020 suggests.
The theme of the stakeholders’ consultations is “Re-thinking Wheat Farming in Nigeria – Seeds I Research I Partnerships”. If the outcomes of the last Olam webinar are anything to go by, then the second edition should engender more useful conversations and interactions aimed at moving the sector forward, ultimately.