ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- In the Amharic language, Addis Ababa, named when the Ethiopian capital moved to the highland city at the end of the 19th century, means "new flower."
It is a fitting name for the host city of a conference whose aim is to encourage the new blossoming of another plant. The first Wheat for Food Security in Africa conference has gathered here to address a growing issue in the continent: Too many Africans are eating products made from wheat, and not enough are growing it.
Sudan, for example, produces roughly 1 ton of wheat at home for every 4 tons of wheat it imports from abroad.
"This is about 1.7 million tons covered by importing," said Abdelraheem Hussein, national coordinator for the wheat research program of Sudan's Agricultural Research Corp., to cover the country's bread, pasta and flour needs.
The environmental constraints are predictable, said Hussein: water scarcity, high heat, poor soil fertility and diseases like the Ug99 strain of stem rust that was first discovered in neighboring Uganda. The government must also provide a clear strategy and policy to wean itself, at least partially, off imports.
Tackling both social and biological problems together could generate life-changing results for the Sudanese.
"If they are put together, we can realize self-sustainability and actually have a surplus," Hussein said.
Overall, North Africa imports about half of the global wheat trade, according to Abdelkader Benbelkcem, a researcher with the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in Tunisia.
As populations both grow and move in droves to the cities, the popular diets of Africans have shifted increasingly to wheat products. This year, African countries will spend $12 billion on wheat imports, according to a study released on the opening day of the conference yesterday by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Research Center (CIMMYT).
Living at the mercy of world markets
As a result, every time there is a price spike in the global commodities marketplace, Africans suffer disproportionately compared to citizens on other continents. When Russia -- which produces about 15 percent of the global supply of wheat -- created a worldwide shortage two years ago by banning exports as a result of a heat wave and fires, wheat prices shot up between 60 and 80 percent.
But independence, or at least near-independence, from exports is possible, says the CIMMYT study. Across the continent, farmers are growing between 10 and 25 percent of what is possible and profitable.
In an analysis of climatic, soil and economic data from 12 sub-Saharan African countries, the researchers found potential yields to be highest in Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania and Uganda. The best soils are in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. In southern Africa -- Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe, specifically -- irrigation would be required for a profitable crop to grow in the winter. Currently, Zimbabwe generates very productive wheat yields, but relies on irrigation.
In addition, another world region's climate loss could be Africa's gain. South Asia, one of the top wheat-producing areas in the world, could lose its advantage as climate change makes conditions more difficult, said Thomas Lumpkin, director-general of CIMMYT.
Nigeria is one nation that has addressed the issue head-on. Authorities announced this year it would seek to become fully self-sufficient in growing its 3.7-billion-ton annual consumption -- essentially banning imports from bread baskets around the world -- by 2016.
But there is a lot to overcome before then, said Augustine Langyintuo, senior policy officer at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. The lack of advanced breeding and biotechnology tools; no accessible existing high-yielding, heat-resistant varieties; poor practices in water and fertilizer use; and scant lending venues leave consumers at the mercy of markets.
This is what more than 250 scientists, farmers, policymakers and economists have come to discuss in Addis Ababa, to seriously consider for the first time what was once, in a time when wheat prices were low, merely a wish.
Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT's Global Wheat program, said he had a hard time promoting the development of wheat fields in Africa when wheat prices were low. But times have changed.
International donors would say, recalled Braun, "wheat is not for Africa. You should grow tea, or rubber, or flowers."
"Five years ago, it was another story," he said.
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