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‘Why efforts to drive cassava flour in bread, others failed’

By Femi Ibirogba
21 March 2022   |   2:40 am
A former Executive Director, the Lake Chad Research Institute and Coordinator, Monitoring and Evaluation, CBN Anchor Borrower Programme on Wheat Production


A former Executive Director, the Lake Chad Research Institute and Coordinator, Monitoring and Evaluation, CBN Anchor Borrower Programme on Wheat Production, Dr. Oluwasina Gbenga Olabanji, in this interview with Head, Agro-Economy, FEMI IBIROGBA, explains challenges affecting wheat production in Nigeria, efforts of the government and the Flour Millers’ Association Nigeria (FMAN) and why cassava composite flour policy has failed. He concludes that consequences trailing the war between Russia and Ukraine are a clarion call to explore and maximise the potential for wheat self-sufficiency in Nigeria.

Nigeria appears to be nearing a food crisis because wheat and rice are major food and raw material items but we are not producing enough. There are fears that the war between Russia and Ukraine could lead to a shortage in wheat imports. Do you agree?  
The war between Russia and Ukraine is rather very unfortunate. It will affect not only Nigeria but others importing wheat. Already, there is a global food crisis as a result of this war.

Russia is the largest exporter of wheat globally while Ukraine is the fifth exporter of wheat. So, you can imagine, the fear is not only for Nigeria but for all countries that are import-dependent on wheat, among which Nigeria is one.  

The government advocated exploring some complimentary inclusions like cassava flour and sweet potato puree in bread.  What is your view as a professional on this and why has it failed to work in Nigeria?
Our former Minister of Agriculture, Dr Adesina Akinwumi, who is now the President of Africa Development Bank (AfDB), actually was promoting wheat cassava bread of about 20 per cent inclusion in wheat bread, but unfortunately, that proposal could not succeed because we have the potential to be self-sufficient in wheat production. And apart from that, if you have composite cassava flour, in wheat flour to make bread, knowing fully that bread making means the gluten content must be high to enable the bread to rise and so they need enzymes to do that. Secondly, the quality of the composite flour is also very important. If you mix cassava flour with wheat flour to make bread, is it durable? What is the shelf life of the bread you are making?  People complained after about three or four days that it would start losing taste, unlike wheat bread that even if you store it very well for a whole week, you can eat it. So, the issue of wheat cassava bread cannot work at this level.

I am not an advocate of this. I am 100 per cent sure that if we have good sustainable agricultural policies to support the wheat value chain in Nigeria, we can be self-sufficient in wheat production soon.  

We know basically that wheat grows in cold regions. How do we cope when we have a shorter period of harmattan in Nigeria? 
Wheat is a temperate crop and that is why wheat is cultivated in this country in the northern part of the country. Initially, there were only 12 states that were producing wheat, but now we have 16 states that are producing wheat in Nigeria.

We are expanding the wheat production frontiers to Kaduna, and the state is producing good wheat. Niger State started just this season and has cultivated 5,100 hectares of wheat and we are trying to explore more states in the North Central like Benue, Kwara and Kogi.  

We are confident that this material can do well because we have heat-tolerant good varieties that can strive in these marginal areas and give us a good yield. Oyo State is among them. In the northern part of Oyo State, such as Saki and Igbeti, we are demonstrating wheat production plots, in collaboration with the Institute of Agricultural Research and Training (IAR&T) in Ibadan. The institute is managing demonstration plots and they are doing well.  

We need to look inward; we have all that it takes to be a big country. We have human, natural and capital resources. If we have purposeful and visionary leaders, we should not be in this situation we are in now. 

Reports say we consume about 6.0 million tonnes yearly. At what level of production are we now?  
We consume 5.9 million tonnes of wheat yearly. As of 2020, our production declined from 350,000 in 2016 to 70,000 metric tonnes. Reasons were insecurity in the country, cost of production and inadequate quality seeds. But we thank God, for the political will of this government through the intervention of two major actors who are the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Flour and Milling Association of Nigeria (FMAN). 

Quality seed was one of our major challenges and CBN imported 13,000 metric tonnes of quality heat-tolerant wheat seeds and they are early-maturing. We started this journey last year when we planted part of the seeds in Sokoto State. It takes a maximum of four months, depending on when the farmer plants. Sometimes, it can be three and half months then you can harvest. The variety produces flowers at 56 days.
So, the seed has been taken care of because we have quality seeds now in the country and this season, we have cultivated about 150,000 hectares throughout the country with the quality seeds.

Farmers that planted in the middle of November to the first week of December have started harvesting, but those who planted very late, late December or early January, are yet to harvest, but I am very confident that before the end of this month and early next month, those laggards will harvest.  

The second challenge is marketing. Farmers will not produce any crop they know they do not have the market for. FMAN, for now, is the only off-taker of wheat and members of the association have been buying all wheat grains produced by our farmers for the past five years and they have committed themselves to the sustenance. They have started buying now from those farmers that have started harvesting.

You said about 150,000 hectares of wheat are cultivated currently. What quantity of yields are the farmers expecting from them?
There was a survey last year funded by FMAN to determine the national production of wheat in the country and they came up with a report that the average productivity of wheat in Nigeria per hectare was 3.0 tonnes. But at that time, farmers were using old recycled materials as seeds. However, with the CBN-facilitated quality seeds, I assure you that a farmer will get 4.0 to 5.0 tonnes per hectare.

When we had a meeting in Abuja about a week ago, FMAN reported that farmers had recorded about 4.5 tonnes per hectare because they gave their own seeds to the farmers early enough. Another good thing about Nigeria’s wheat now is the quality of the seeds and the grains. For off-takers, they are very much concerned about the quality of the product and they have certified that the Norman variety, which we are cultivating is of high quality in terms of flour making and baking quality. So, once that one is established, that tells you that the market is available for wheat.

How can its production be significantly increased in the country?
With an average of 4.0 to 5.0 tonnes per hectare, and with 100,000 hectares of wheat grains this season, we are expecting about 400,000 to 500,000 metric tonnes, and that will be the largest in the history of Nigeria. That shows you that a new journey to self-sufficiency in wheat production in Nigeria has started. So, if we have 400,000 to 500,000 tonnes, and about 200,000 to 250,000 tonnes of seeds from 50,000 hectares, in the next season, we are targeting 250 thousand hectares to be cultivated. And this will nearly double what we are expecting now. 

How do we sustain these quality seeds? Is there any plan to import or multiply the seeds? 
We are not importing seeds; the quantity that has come that I told you is 13,000 metric tonnes. That is 130 thousand bags. We have not exhausted that as we still have some tonnes left. Then, the CBN has engaged seed companies to multiply seeds for them. They gave the seed companies quality foundation seeds to multiply, which they are doing right now to increase the quantum of seeds that would be needed for the next season and that is how we will continue.

Out of that 150,000 hectares I told you, Lake Chad Research Institute is cultivating about 1,200 hectares for breeder and foundation seeds production, Flour Mill of Nigeria cultivated about 2,500 hectares for seed multiplication. Then they had 504 demonstration plots which I personally went round to supervise and I found out that they are good materials, very pure and true to time, and we have agreed that we are harvesting those ones as seeds.

How many seed companies are engaged in these multiplications?
For now, we have about eight seed companies multiplying seeds and these are big companies.

You said insecurity caused a drop in the production of wheat in the country in 2020. What is the situation now? 
Borno State is one of the major hubs for wheat production in this country and it is the hotbed of insurgency. Not only that, the soil in Borno State cannot be compared with any other in this country, because the soil is very productive, especially for wheat.

You cannot compare the yield of wheat in Borno State with any other place. But unfortunately, it has been ravaged by Boko Haram. Where we used to have our own seed multiplication in Mate Local Government, with more than 30,000 hectares, is a no-go area now. But we want to thank the government, particularly the governor of Borno State. Some local governments have been rescued. We have cultivated wheat in three local councils of Borno State — Konduga, Biu and Sale. This year, Borno State has cultivated about 525 hectares of wheat compared to last year when it was zero.

Are you optimistic that more will still be cultivated?
By the grace of God, this insecurity cannot continue forever and that is why I am very optimistic that we can attain 70 per cent production if all hands are on deck.

Any last word for the government, farmers or flour millers?
My advice to the government is this, there is no country that is import-dependent that can thrive as a secured nation: The Nigerian government should, as a matter of urgency, formulate a sustainable agricultural policy that will drive all the agric value chains, particularly rice, wheat and maize, as these staple foods of the nation.

Secondly, the government must continue to assist farmers in the area of inputs and mechanization, which are very critical. In fact, China produces about 135.3 million tonnes, but Nigeria is talking about 450,000. China achieved that through farm mechanization. So, we must invest in new improved technologies like mechanisation, good quality seeds and good extension service delivery. Nigeria has started doing something good, and we want it to be sustained by the government. Whoever comes there tomorrow must have a passion to embrace advanced technologies that can make us be self-sufficient in food production.

Then for CBN, I must say that their interventions are highly commendable and appreciated. We know the interventions cannot be forever, but let us put a strategic mechanism in place to sustain what it has started and the same thing with FMAN.

As I mentioned to you, FMAN is not only an off-taker now but they are also into research, in collaboration with the Lake Chad Research Institute, getting pure lines of wheat varieties from abroad and evaluating them and seeing the ones that are adaptable to our own environment to increase productivity.

Egypt gets a yield of eight tonnes per hectare through mechanization. Their farmers are using what they call seedbed technology. We can also do that here if we are very serious about farming. We can get this seedbed technology and we will get good yield once we are able to have high productivity, you know you are increasing the supply of these items in the market and the price will drop.

So, in five years, what percentage are we likely to cover in the quantity we import now?
I am a full Nigerian and I am very passionate about my country and also very optimistic that we can do it because I remember vividly about six years ago that I mentioned to Nigerians that in the next five years, we would be able to attain about 50 per cent self-sufficiency, but when I said that, the Agricultural Transformation Agenda was in place and was working, but the policy somersaulted and so it went back.

So, I am telling you now that with this new journey and with the instruments and tools that are available, in the next five years, we should be able to attain 70 per cent self-sufficiency and that will reduce our importation by 70 per cent.

Look at what happened during COVID-19, there was no country that was ready to export and the same thing is happening now. Russia has said as long as other countries are sanctioning, it is going to sanction the world with no export of its wheat. Ukraine cannot go to the farm and Ukraine produces 26.8 million metric tonnes of wheat, and Russia is 89.5 million metric tonnes. The USA’s is about 48.5 tonnes. So, if Russia withholds, there will be a global wheat crisis, but we should not be afraid as a country with a population of over 200 million, we should awake from our slumber and face challenges.

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