A new report says growers in sub-Saharan Africa may only be producing 10 to 25 percent of the wheat production possible in the region. The research suggests that it is biologically possible and economically profitable to grow more wheat. With rainwater alone, and with proper use of fertilizer and other investments, 20 to 100 percent of farmlands in the 12 nations studied appear to be ecologically suitable for profitable wheat farming, according to an analysis based on advanced computer modeling techniques.

The study was released by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), and is the first ever comprehensive report on sub-Saharan Africa’s economic and biological potential. CIMMYT conducted the study as population increases in Africa are pushing up domestic imports of wheat grain, which is becoming increasingly more expensive.

“Our study suggests that if the proper investments are made, eight of the countries in our study could significantly reduce their dependence on wheat imports,” said Bekele Shiferaw, a lead author and director of CIMMYT’s Socioeconomics Program, based in Nairobi, Kenya. “But our work also suggests that fulfilling the promise of this study will require a shift in how the crop is viewed in sub-Saharan African and will only occur with significant support from governments and development agencies.”

Africa is anticipated to spend about $12 billion to import 40 million tons of wheat in 2012. Farmers only produce about 44 percent of wheat consumer locally. This leaves much of the country’s demand for wheat in the hands of global traders and volatility of global wheat traders.

Shiferaw said these trends threaten Africa’s national security and that the country needs to strive for “wheat self-sufficiency.”

According to the authors of the study, the potential for expansion of wheat production is greatest in countries with some underutilized but suitable land and with good market access. Given that wheat is currently a relatively minor crop in many of the countries, farmers will not expand production until there are markets and value chains that offer competitive prices. In countries and production areas where land is scarce and labor is cheaper (e.g., many highland and mid-altitude production areas), the potential for intensive cereal production using modern varieties and inputs is high. Here market access and extension support will be the critical constraints to intensification. In areas where land is abundant and labor is scarce, wheat production using mechanization would be a feasible option.

"Governments and non-government organizations must overcome the mindset that Africa is not a wheat-producing region," said Mahmoud Solh, Director General of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). "This study suggests that if the right things are done to support farmers, whether now or in the future, we could see a dramatic improvement in Africa's ability to feed itself by producing major staples locally, including wheat."