Profitable wheat farming stuck between rice, better seeds

Profitable wheat farming stuck between rice, better seeds

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Between January and September 2022, Nigeria imported at least N753.6 billion worth of wheat. The grain is widely used for different products across the country; both by individuals and especially industries such as flour millers. However, local production can barely meet 2-4 percent of the country’s demand.

The challenges of wheat production are varied in Nigeria as experts have highlighted over the years, but getting high-yielding, heat-tolerant varieties into the hands of farmers has been a major limitation.

“We are far below in terms of wheat,” said Zachary Turaki, director, cereals research at the Lake Chard Research Institute. “2 percent is not enough to be comfortable, and we must within the shortest period of time, take it to more than 50 percent.”

Turaki added that achieving this goal would only be possible through the public sector’s collaboration and partnership with the private sector.

In 2021, a N300 million 10-year project was launched to set up community seed enterprises for Nigerian farmers to increase their production of wheat. This wheat value chain project, according to Olam Nigeria and its subsidiary Crown Flour Mill Limited (CFM), which set it up, was to strengthen agricultural production in northern Nigeria’s wheat farming belt.

The project has been trialling new heat-tolerant varieties of wheat and improved agronomic practices using a participatory approach that directly engages farmers. Its plans also include engaging at least 10 female farmers’ associations to become true drivers of change for their communities by training women to lead community-based seed enterprises. These enterprises will produce and make available high value seed to farmers in their local communities.

While it may not always sell better than rice, especially irrigated rice, wheat as market prices and demand show, remains a profitable option for farmers

When the first-year report for this ‘Seed for the Future’ initiative was presented last year, it showed progress, but also gave new insights into the psyche of farmers that needed to be addressed in bridging the productivity gap.

While wheat has a clear and large demand that also commands reasonable market prices, it was discovered that the preference for rice by farmers, means they only devote the window between planting rice to wheat cultivation.

“Rice is the main crop, and wheat should not interfere with it,” said Kachalla Kyari Mala, lead researcher on the project and a principal research officer at the Lake Chard research institute, while giving insights into the findings and farmers’ sentiments.

At the time of the survey, a ton of wheat sold for an average of N330,000, which could be estimated to be 30 percent more than what paddy rice sold for. While it may not always sell better than rice, especially irrigated rice, wheat as market prices and demand show, remains a profitable option for farmers.

It was stated that surveyed farmers harvested rainfed rice between late October to early November, and irrigated rice is planted in early March to late April. This meant farmers can only plant wheat between November and March; within 90 to 100 days.

This also means two things are required to make wheat cultivation more attractive to farmers (if money was not enough motivation); early maturing as well as high-yielding varieties.

As Mala explained, most of the farmers were already cultivating wheat in rotation with two seasons of rice; rainfed and irrigated. What remained was putting in their hands, wheat seeds that would mature quickly during the window they have traditionally planted, and at exceptionally good yields too.

It was also revealed that those farmers first have to sell the harvests for instance, from their rainfed rice in October/November to get the funds to grow then wheat. The sales from rice harvests are hardly immediate and even if done, payments may not come in fast enough for them to commit to wheat cultivation early enough. Mala had emphasised that wheat prevents timely planting of irrigated rice, which is more profitable than wheat. This reiterates the need for early maturing varieties to avoid delays in the planting of rice.

“Any (wheat) variety that takes more than 100 days, we cannot promote it because farmers don’t like it. And of course, we want it to yield more than the Norman (variety),” said Fillipo Bassi, senior scientist, Durum Wheat Breeder of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

Bassi, who has made a name for himself in the field, is part of the project in Nigeria, and working with local teams to develop new and better breeds. Should Nigerian farmers cultivate wheat, or stick to rice or maize? He asks, but the answer lies in how easy wheat cultivation is made, and how profitable it is compared to the other grains (especially when the ‘stress’ of production is factored in).

“Seed is a business and if it’s good seed, it’s a good business,” said Bassi, while emphasising the need for more investments and collaboration in developing appropriate seeds for the Nigerian environment.

To achieve, for instance, 100,000 hectares of wheat production, Bassi explains this would require about one-tenth of that expanse from farmers willing to produce the seeds for the others to plant. The logistics to move that amount of seed needs would require more than 250 trucks, and to achieve a million hectares or more, the numbers can simply be multiplied. This, as he explains shows the business opportunities that exist if production of seeds to drive wheat cultivation in Nigeria is to be explored.

“For any nation, food security is a right. People have the right to food security, bread (and other food), and it is important that we put in place things like technologies to make them happen,” he said. A first step, as he and others have highlighted is good, early maturing, high-yielding seeds for wheat.

Read also: Fuel, wheat, ‘tokunbo’ vehicles top imports in 2022

Early maturing wheat varieties remain a recurring theme for farmers, especially as the survey found, with most of them looking to add wheat in the system rather than replacing rice, for instance.

While Bassi said to do this, farmers are less concerned with yield and much more concerned with the fact that if the wheat season is too long, then they cannot plant rice timely. If they do not, then they lose yield on rice and become unhappy. Yet, the icing on this cake would be early maturing varieties that would also deliver high yields, which would on one hand make farmers more money, but also move Nigeria closer to sufficiency in wheat production.

For Ashish Pande, country head of Olam, with Nigeria importing close to 5.6 million metric tons of wheat, it is critical to start a journey towards the localization of wheat in Nigeria, which has been done through the Seed for the Future initiative.

“The results are not going to be one year or two years kind of thing,” he said, rather would require consistent inputs and collaboration across both the private and public sectors.

“I think at the end of ten years or so, we definitely will see a great shift in Nigeria in terms of wheat production,” he said.

There were immediate plans to train ten associations of rural female farmers, for a total of about 100 women and reach 100 tons of certified seeds. If all goes according to plan, in the end, the goal is to produce 100,000 tons of seeds from more than 50,000 farmers.

When better seeds are available for farmers, and also possibly, access to microcredit to incentivise them, it is expected that with time, the approximately Nt trillion currently spent importing wheat into Nigeria would be slowly, and wholly retained locally.

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