The Wheat Paradox

Increase in wheat harvest still struggles to meet demand

It has been several years since Ethiopia became net importer of wheat while the county is a major one from sub Saharan countries in its potential of wheat production. Indeed, the yield of wheat production is increasing per hectare, for instance four year back one hectare plot of land yielded 19ql of wheat but this number increased to 24ql during the past one year, even though the production is increasing as the same time import is increasing relatively at same rate, reports FASIKA TADESSE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.

Atlaw Desta, 38, feels excited as he looks upon his 10ha of fully green wheat, which gives him hope of a high yield during the November-January harvest. The father of four has been farming 15ha of farmland for the last 10 years at a place named Gimbiti, Limu and Bilbilo Kebele, some kilometers away from Bekoji, Arsi. The area is Ethiopia’s largest wheat-producing region along with Bale, with both areas located in Oromia Regional State.

Atlaw covers 10ha with wheat and grows cabbage and sesame on the other five hectare. His farm is among the largest in Gimbete, where most farmers have one to two hectares at best, and where some have holdings as small as one or two qert, a local measure equal to a quarter of a hectare. Most of them harvest wheat.

Nationally, wheat has been harvested on 1.5 million to 1.6 million hectares of land yearly between 2009/10 and 2013/14. In 2009, the area used for harvesting wheat was 1.6 million hectares, which decreased to 1.5 million hectares in 2012/13. However, wheat yield has been somewhat unpredictable, increasing from 30 million quintals in 2009/10 fiscal year to 31 million quintals in 2012/13 (while the plot decreased), but showing a 0.5 million quintals reduction from 31.5 million quintals yield in 2011/12. For 2013/14, which will be harvested between November and December 39 million quintals are expected.

The Central Statistics Agency (CSA) projection shows an increase in both the size of harvested land and the yield to 1.6 million hectares and 39.3 million quintals, respectively. There is a potential of irrigation wheat farming on an additional one million hectares, of which not more than 200,000ha is currently under use, according to Tadesse Dessalegne (PhD), technical coordinator of East African Agricultural Products, Wheat Regional Centre of Excellence, a research institute established by Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda.

Atlaw is using the same 10ha, but expects a higher yield of 600ql from the previous year’s 480ha.

During the last four years the average yield of wheat per hectare increased from 19ql to 24ql, according to Tadesse. The higher yield expectation this year is a result of a good rainy season, improved seeds, as well as DAPS and Urea fertilizers, according to Matios Ashamo, coordinator at Areka Agricultural Research Centre in the Southern Regional State.

The number of farmers who used improved seeds also reached 10pc during the last harvesting season, Tadesse said.

Atlaw’s optimism is also affected by the reports of government import of wheat.

The government is importing four million quintals of wheat for 2.4 billion Br in the current fiscal year; it is also in the process of procuring two million additional quintals out of a total plan for 6.5 million quintals for the entire year, according to Etenesh Gebremichael, public relations& trade information head at the Ethiopian Grain Trade Enterprise (EGTE).

EGTE was re-established in 2009 by incorporating the Ethiopian Oil Seeds & Pulses Export Corporation. In May 2013, another Agency, the Strategic Food Reserve Agency (SFRA), was established with overlapping responsibilities. The SFRA buys from the domestic market and from its reserve supplies the domestic and export markets. The EGTE does basically the same thing in addition to being authorized to import grain.

The government imported 17.7 million quintals of wheat spending 15.5 billion Br between 2009/10 and 2013/14.

Following a shortage of wheat at flour factories, the EGTE is distributing wheat at a subsidized price of 550 Br per quintal to 288 flour factories across the country starting in August 2014,.

Gadissa Gobenna, a farmer for the past 21 years, sows wheat on 40ha of land in Ambo, in West Shoa zone of Oromia. Last year, he sold a quintal of wheat to wholesalers for 1,200 Br.

The price of wheat nearly doubled between 2009/10, when it was sold for 574 Br per quintal, and 2013/14, when the average price was around 1,040 Br. The prices Atlaw managed during the year varied from 970 Br to 1,200 Br. The good harvest and the imports could bring the price down to 800 Br this year, Atlaw fears.

Atlaw gets 40ql per hectare and his expenses for that size of land is about 5,720 Br for seeds, DAP and Urea fertilizers, and chemicals for fungus and toxins.

In his interview with Fortune last August, Minister of Trade, Ali Siraj stated that the government would not import more wheat unless it sensed a gap in supply seeing the harvest between October and November.

“We expect good yields during the October to December wheat harvest, but if we feel there is a gap, we will import more wheat after we have seen the harvest,” he said.

However, within a month of that interview, the Ministry of Finance & Economic Development (MoFED) announced an international auction for the supply of two million quintals of wheat by mid-September 2014. According to an official from EGTE who wants to remain anonymous, in the previous year the government had expected a good harvest and had avoided imports, which led to the supply shortage; this latest order was intended to avoid that kind of mistake”. The other main reason for the new import is to avert a shortage until the farmers collect the new harvest.

Tadesse says that as demand continues to grow, Ethiopia would not still stop importing wheat even if yields increased. The number of flour factories has also grown from 204 in 2009/10 to 288 in 2013/14.

In the current fiscal year, 12.6 million hectares of land are being harvested for crops including teff, wheat, maize, barley and sorghum of which 1.6 million hectares or 12.7pc of the total is harvested with wheat. The government forecasts a total yield of 300 million quintals this year, up from 253 million quintals last year, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA).

According to CSA’s projections, Oromia will produce the highest amount of wheat, 23 million quintals from 837,000ha, followed by Amhara, where the yield is expected to reach 11.2 million quintals of wheat from 529,649ha. The least yield will be from the Harari region, where a yield of 1590ql of wheat is expected from 72ha.

According to Asrat Gebretsadik, representative of communications of the MoA, the high rate of population growth (2.9pc) is the main reason for increasing imports despite of a growth of 25pc in domestic harvests.

The increase in production does not match the increasing demand for wheat and, in urban areas, for bread, says an expert from Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) who has conducted research on wheat. Places in the areas known as the wheat belt could produce upto 80ql a hectare, he says, which is possible, since there are areas that are already producing 90ql per hectare.


Published on November 02, 2014 [ Vol 15 ,No 757]



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