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August 09, 2015

Rwanda's ambitious plans to grow its own wheat

Wheat may be the most ambitious of the grain crops for African countries to aim to be self-sufficient in, for many reasons. It is a much more demanding crop than maize, Africa's main grain, which many countries struggle to grow enough of, with yields being in the low single digit tonnes per hectare.

A relative luxury crop, most African countries depend on imports of wheat. South Africa and Zimbabwe  represent some of the few countries in Africa that have had significant wheat-growing sectors, but in both countries cultivated hectares are declining, as is competitiveness against imported wheat.

Given this scenario, Rwanda's plans 'to close the gap between wheat imports and domestic production as soon as possible' may seem to be ill-advised, although the country does have some wheat-production factors on its side. For one thing, it is a highlands country, with a good calendar spread of the temperate climes (cool temperature and heavy rains) needed for wheat production, whereas in South Africa and Zimbabwe wheat can only be successfully grown in a short, dry winter season under heavy, expensive irrigation.

Rwanda's agriculture ministry has a target of over 53,000 hectares being taken up by wheat and to date has managed to oversee over 43,000 hectares.

Published data (FAO and USDA) indicates Rwanda's 2015 wheat area to be around 35,000 hectares, with yields averaging two tonnes/hectare (global average: 4.374 tonne/ha, FAO.)

Unlike in some countries where wheat production is predominantly on large commercial farms, most of Rwanda's production is by small scale farmers.

Amongst a cocktail of measures expected to increase wheat production are increased cultivated hectarage, better choice of cultivated strains, increased use of fetilisers, improved extension services and reduction of post-harvest losses.

But even with all these measures that have seen Rwandan wheat production increase in hectarage and yields, there remain significant challenges to a viable local wheat sector. One of these is low price imports of wheat  allowed by many governments. This helps to keep the price of bread affordable for the politically active urban populations, to the cost of local wheat producers.

Why do governments permit low-price wheat imports? Amongst the answers: Local wheat is often of poorer quality, the supply is inadequate, and transportation costs can be higher than cost of imported varieties.

“But even if duties are imposed, our producers cannot compete with the kind of subsidies that producers in the exporting countries enjoy,” said an official of the Rwanda Agriculture Board. 

Given the experiences of other countries in Africa and elsewhere, Rwanda may find that there are obstacles to wheat self-sufficiency that are so numerous that it may not be a goal worth pursuing, given far more pressing agricultural challenges.

African Agriculture

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