Improving Africa's wheat potential requires more than a few good seeds

ASELLA, Ethiopia -- The Kulumsa Research Center, located in the pastoral East Africa Rift Valley 86 miles southeast of the Ethiopian capital, is an oasis of high wheat productivity in the bread basket of Ethiopia. But its blooming realities are not yet Africa's.

The center, where the country's National Wheat Breeding Project is located, is home to extensive field research on bread wheat. Here, agronomists and plant breeders test seed tinkered to endure drought, heat and diseases like stem rust while pumping out high rain yields.

Kulumsa also serves as an experimental site for innovative crop management practices. One researcher is building an irrigation system that uses wastewater from a nearby malt barley factory, for example.

The efforts show. Yields in the experimental plots average 5 metric tons per hectare, or about 12.36 metric tons per acre. But this high level of productivity is more than double the reach of most of Africa's smallholder farmers, who each hold just a few hectares of fields and average between 1 and 2 metric tons per hectare.

Despite expanding efforts to boost crop production through advances in breeding and biotechnology, several nonscientific hurdles remain in the way of self-sufficient wheat production for African countries.

"If you see the yields, they are actually going up. That is good news that research is actually happening," said David Nyameino, CEO of the Cereal Growers Association of Kenya, at the Wheat for Food Security in Africa conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this week. The conference was organized to address the 37-million-metric ton gap between what Africans consume and what they produce in wheat.

In Ethiopia, where nine out of 10 farmers tend to just a few hectares of land, most simply reuse seed year after year, rather than buy better varieties. Farmers often lack knowledge of helpful crop management practices like rainwater harvesting, crop rotation, composting or low-impact tilling because agricultural extensions are few and far between.


In addition, a lack of intellectual property laws and systems makes breeders reluctant to develop and introduce new seeds, said Rolf Jordens, special adviser to the World Intellectual Property Organization. Issues of land tenure are also critical, as many farmers rent and do not own land and are unable to take out loans for lack of collateral.

'In good hands'?

The national mean for wheat production in Ethiopia was 1.74 metric tons per hectare in 2009. Even one Ethiopian commercial farmer -- who holds a total of 1,000 acres of both rain-fed and irrigated wheat -- can only average about 2.5 metric tons per hectare.

Kulumsa Research Center is nestled in the wheat basket of Ethiopia, itself the biggest wheat grower in sub-Saharan Africa. Behailu Metaferya, a farmer in the nearby Etaya district, grows two seed varieties distributed by Kulumsa Research Center -- Shorima and Kakaba, seeds bred for resistance to the devastating stem rust and for boosting yields -- on 2 hectares (4.9 acres).

Behailu claims he has achieved yields of up to 6 metric tons per hectare and could reach 8 metric tons if he had used compost and rotated his wheat crop with fava beans.

Here, said Bekele Abeyo, a wheat breeder and pathologist for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), farmers are lucky to benefit from an active agricultural extension, where scientists and experts reach out to farmers to teach them the best management practices for optimal yields.

"They know what their cash crop is," he said. "They are in good hands."

But the extensions, the key link between the laboratory and the field, are not always so effective, said policymakers at a panel on the conference.

"I think it's a one-way relation between extension and [farmer]," said Adil O-Abdel Raheem, the acting director-general for Sudan's Agricultural Research Corp. "They get one-way information but no feedback."

"Research extension has been weak," agreed Baba Yusuf Abubakar, executive secretary of the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria.

Communication between the two needs to increase at events like agricultural fairs and shows, said Moses Mwale of the Zambia Agricultural Research Institute.

Climate change adds another stress

Increasing mechanization and irrigation have been at the forefront of Zimbabwe's agriculture, said the country's agriculture mechanization minister, Joseph Made, in an interview with ClimateWire.

"There's a full recognition specific to Zimbabwe, even specific to Africa, that the issue of global warming and climate change are going to be at the center of production," Made said. "Significantly, we are seeing inconsistent patterns of rainfall, inconsistent patterns of the extremes of dry and sometimes in the extremes of floods."

The country's land reform policies, he said, have helped smallholder farmers access more land and afford better irrigation systems and harvesting machines.

"Land reform has given some equity," he said. "This is where the intervention of irrigation comes in. That's a major investment."

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