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Food Security: Evaluating Olam’s wheat trial project

Nigeria’s wheat value chain key players, including the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD), the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), the Wheat Farmers Association of Nigeria (WFAN) and the Flour Milling Association of Nigeria (FMAN) have backed Olam’s Seeds for the Future wheat trial project to ramp up local production for food security, Taiwo Hassan reports

The impasse in resolving the Ukraine-Russia war continues to threaten the supply of valuable food commodities across the globe. The wheat supply value chain is one of the casualties of the war. This is because the two warring nations are key producers of the commodity. Consequently, Nigeria’s agric sector is feeling the heat of the war significantly in wheat consumption.

FAO’s calls

Sadly, the negative impacts of the war run deep, making the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to warn that unless the Least Developed Countries (LDC), among which are notable African nations, take quick measures, wider starvation is imminent. The measures proposed to stave off the looming hunger include a scaled investment in the local production of key staples such as wheat.

Global wheat disruption

Nigeria is not unaffected by the disruption to the global wheat supply chain. The country has been battling with a growing population and an increased demand for wheat-derivative foods. It currently produces less than 10 per cent of the wheat required to meet the skyrocketing local demand. The reliance on wheat importation to fill the gap, therefore, leaves the country vulnerable to shocks in the global supply value chain. Following this, the Federal Government has been making frantic efforts to reduce the country’s reliance on commodity exports. It is leaving no stone unturned in achieving a level of growth in the local food production value chain.

Local wheat investment

Essentially, the Ukraine-Russia civil war has spotlighted salient challenges in Nigeria’s wheat value chain. The need for increased investments in local wheat development has become imminent if Nigeria is serious about navigating through the projected imminent global food crisis as forecasted by the United Nations FAO. Even though wheat is best suited for temperate climate, the government is encouraging the private sector to look inwards. A public-private partnership (PPP) approach to economic development is key to achieving growth. The private sector possesses the apt capability, extensive partner networks and valuable investment. These capabilities can be leveraged to address the challenges in the wheat value chain.

Olam’s intervention

To further demonstrate its commitment to Nigeria’s agriculture sector’s growth and economic development, Olam Agri, a leading agribusiness transforming food, feed, and fibre for a sustainable future, launched the Seeds for the Future initiative in 2021. The initiative forms the agribusiness’ flagship wheat value chain development effort. The business has partnered with the Lake Chad Research Institute (LCRI), a local research institute located in Maiduguri, and Dr. Filippo Bassi, an expert durum wheat breeder from the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), on the project.

The tactical approach to the project involves efficient utilisation of the capabilities of local agronomic researchers and the well-networked village-based women smallholder wheat farmer cooperatives in the wheat farming belts of the North to dissect the various challenges impeding growth in the value chain, going ahead to tackle them head-on. Essentially, for Olam Agri, bridging the huge wheat production gap in the country will help mitigate food security challenges. A large percentage of the over 200 million population consumes wheat in one derivative or the other. Bread, semolina, noodles, biscuit amongst others which are produced from wheat are consumed widely across local households. Shoring up the supply of these key foods is necessary to feed the growing population. This won’t be achieved without investing in achieving wheat production self-sufficiency.

Wheat seed first-year report

Olam Agri’s strides in that regard hold so much hope. The business delivered an impressive first-year report on the Seeds for the Future project. The report showed that the initiative achieved its firstyear milestone of producing 10Kg premultiplication wheat seed varieties that suit the unique local topography and climate. The report is a piece of good news. The topography and climate conditions in the wheat farming belt form two of the major challenges impeding wheat production locally. The attempt to produce wheat seed varieties that suit the local topography and climate is certainly going to lead to a wider switch to wheat farming among smallholder farmers. This will positively impact the production level of wheat in Nigeria. Great years ahead, isn’t it? Speaking on the project, the Country Head for Olam Agri in Nigeria, Ashish Pande, said: “We have made quite an impressive stride on the Seeds for the Future programme going by the firstyear report. It is a journey. “We will continue to inject human, financial, and technical resources into the programme to ensure we meet our targets and derive the best results in the years ahead.” Pande noted: “There are challenges currently in the global food value chain. What this means is that we must look inward to ensure a consistent supply of food to feed our population by chan-neling investment into agriculture. “At Olam Agri, we are committed to investing at the production level of the wheat value chain, in line with the Federal Government’s food security and agriculture development agenda.”

Stakeholders’ viewpoint

Olam Agri’s contribution to Nigeria’s agric sector’s development is receiving reviews among eminent Nigerians. Speaking on the project, the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, explained that the company was investing in Nigeria’s future through the Seeds for the Future Foundation. He noted that the laudable intervention efforts in research and seed development and other critical sectors of the economy had attracted greater attention leading to the business receiving the National Productivity Order of Merit Award from the President, H.E. President Muhammadu Buhari, last year. The vice president also mentioned that Olam Agri’s robust investment in various intervention projects demonstrated the company’s confidence in the country. In the same vein, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mahmood Abubakar, commended the project. According to him, with the growing population and consumption rate of wheat and other agro-allied products, Nigeria has no option but to boost its productivity to meet the country’s increasing demand. Abubakar said: “The wheat industry has been of serious concern to the Federal Government. This is because the national requirement for wheat is 5.7 million metric tonnes annually, while our production is 420,000 metric tonnes.” In his reaction to the development of local wheat value chain, President/ Chief Executive of Dangote Group, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, explained that Olam Agri had made giant stride by embarking on a local wheat seeds trial project that will secure the country’s future food system, in terms of local wheat production. He said developing the wheat value chain had become necessary to bolster the country’s food security position in the face of the war in Ukraine. Dangote acknowledged that the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine had led to the scarcity of food, arising from the inability to access fertiliser and other components of Agric inputs. He stressed his support for self-sufficiency, which he tagged, “eat what you grow.”

Wheat scarcity

With the innovative wheat project now in its second-year, the wheat shortage is biting harder. The Wheat Farmers Association of Nigeria (WFAN) keeps lamenting the shortage, saying consumers and other users struggle to get regular supplies on daily basis. The National President of the association, Alhaji Musa Shehu, told New Telegraph that “in the Nigerian setting, research institutes that breed seeds only do so on demand; therefore, very few seeds are in the hands of farmers.” “The certified seeds that we have are insufficient to meet the needs of all farmers in Nigeria that are involved in wheat cultivation. The Ukraine and Russia conflict is an indication that we have to do something to boost seed development, which will help us to develop our wheat production to meet our local and national demands. “So, one of the problems that we’re facing is that certified seeds are not enough. I know a research institute and other agencies that are doing their best now to ensure the availability of seeds.” He mentioned that the shortage in the supply of wheat locally was “hurting Nigerians as the cost of bread, cakes, and other pastries has skyrocketed due to what bakers referred to as a triple rise in the price of wheat flour.”

FX challenges

Amidst the current wheat supply challenge, the Federal Government must come to the aid of flour millers to reduce hardship for consumers. One of the ways the government can help the millers is to reduce or remove some of the levies placed on the millers under the umbrella of the Flour Milling Association of Nigeria (FMAN). The government should also consider providing access to foreign exchange (FX) on the Importer & Exporter (I&E) window to ease the importation of wheat in this crucial period. Nigeria’s wheat importers need dedicated forex allocation from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to enable them to import wheat from Europe and North America. Russia, Ukraine, Canada, Mexico, USA, into the country. These cushioning efforts would cascade to the local bakers and consumers who have been bearing the brunt of hikes in food ingredient prices. Indeed, wheat importation is imperative for Nigeria during this period. Hence, food companies such as BUA Plc, Olam Agri, Dangote, and Flour Mills of Nigeria amongst others should be giving access to forex to import durum wheat to complement the meagre 420,000 tons produced locally.

Last line

However, with the Olam Agri’s Seeds for the Future trial project now in its second year, agric stakeholders are anxiously looking forward to bridging the huge wheat production gap in the country, so as, to mitigate food security challenges and feed over 200 million people.

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