From Africa to the Middle East, countries lay strategies to boost local production in the wake of a global food security crisis

With Russia and Ukraine together accounting for one-third of global wheat trade, 17 percent of global maize trade, and almost 75 percent of global sunflower oil trade, Russia’s invasion shocked global agricultural markets. Immediately after Russia’s invasion in February 2022, the FAO Food Price Index hit an all-time high, followed by a second all-time high in March 2022. Wheat and maize suddenly became scarce exposing countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, which depended on these two warring nations for their own food supplies. One year on, a visible shift in strategy is starting to emerge in this region- countries are starting to encourage local production to reduce overreliance on imports. Although the strategic crops vary from country to country, one thing is clear, countries no longer want to rely on imports to feed their people.  In this editorial, we highlight a few notable examples across the expansive MEA region.

UAE targets food self-sufficiency by 2030

Perhaps one of the best examples to start us off is the United Arab Emirates. Although located in the Arabian Desert with little to no rainfall, this oil-rich Emirate targets to achieve self-sufficiency of selected food items including red meat, poultry, eggs and other dairy products, dates, leafy vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and aubergine by 2030.  Mariam Al Mheiri, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, Minister of State for Food Security, said recent global crises have underlined the need for promoting food security in the UAE.

To get there, UAE is deploying next-gen agriculture technologies including Salmon farming on land, Fitbit-style devices for cattle, and acres of temperature-controlled greenhouses producing vegetables. Some wins are already being scored on the way. According to National News UAE, total UAE vegetable production is about 156,000 tonnes annually, which is enough to meet more than 20 percent of the total demand in the country. The plan is to raise this to 50 percent by the end of this year, 70 percent by 2025, and 100 percent by 2030.

Sharjah, one of the cities in the Emirates is pushing the boundaries on what is possible when it comes to agriculture. Through precision farming, the city was recently able to harvest about 150,000 tonnes of wheat from its model farm. The city aims to raise the land under agriculture to 1,900 hectares by 2025. Production from the farms will greatly substitute imports which are currently estimated at 1.7 million tonnes per year.

Tanzania doubles down on palm production

Impacted by the dramatic rise in vegetable oil prices globally, Tanzania is scheming to wean itself from overreliance on the international market for its own supplies.  Tanzanian prime minister Kassim Majaliwa is spearheading this initiative and is actively encouraging the cultivation and production of palm oil in a bid to halt the importation cost of edible oil which costs the country TSH470bn (US$201M) every year. To make the dream a reality, Tanzanian research institution in collaboration with other stakeholders has developed a new palm oil variety TENERA, which produce oil three times more than the DURA type which is used by approximately 90 percent of farmers. Out of the 14.14 million seeds that were produced, 9.60 million seeds have been distributed to farmers and other institutions including prisons.

According to usda, kenya will produce 3.2 million tonnes of maize in 2022- 23, just 600,000 tonnes shy
Of expected consumption.


Kenya gives maize a serious thought

After suffering the worst drought in four decades, Kenya has had to contend with a shortage of maize so severe that it has become a national crisis. The little that is available is sold at more than double the price it used to sell two years ago further constraining already stretched consumer budgets.  Efforts to source the maize from its neighbors have also proved futile as supplies there are also critically low. Even with the scrapping of duty on maize imports, the landing price of imported maize is still high creating zero hopes of lower maize prices in the near future.

To prevent this from happening again, the Kenyan government has resorted to boosting local production through a number of strategies including subsidizing fertilizers to lower the cost of corn productions which will translate to lower maize prices. In a surprise change in policy, the government also gave up plans to subdivide the great Galana-Kulalu irrigation project and instead opened it up to investment from the private sector. Agri-tech firm Twiga Foods is among the first beneficiaries of the new scheme having secured some 20,000 acres in the one-million-acre scheme for maize plantation. To further bolster maize supplies, Kenya signed a memorandum of understanding with Zambia to have large-scale farmers plant maize on 49, 000 acres in Zambia and then export the commodity to the country. Efforts are already starting to bear fruit. According to the USDA, Kenya will produce 3.2 million tonnes of maize, in 2022-23, just 600,000 shy of the expected consumption demand. If the efforts are sustained, Kenya could be well on its way in achieving self-sufficiency in this very important commodity.

Ghana wants more rice grown locally

Faced with depleting foreign reserves, Ghana has decided to substitute rice imports with local production. It estimates to save about US$1.3 billion in foreign exchange reserves which is currently used in importing rice into the country. The strategy is multipronged and involved bringing improved rice seeds to farmers across the country to enable them produce the “perfumed rice” which is mostly preferred by Ghanaian consumers. The government in partnership with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) has also launched a Rice Value Chain Project to tackle Post-Harvest processes.  Further, rice is a key commodity in the government’s “planting for food and job “campaign to further boost local production.

With more rice anticipated, the government has also recently announced plans to set aside US$684 million for domestic rice production and processing as part of its pathways to self-sufficiency in the next five years. According to Robert Ankobia, the Chief Director of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the money will also assist in the expansion of certified seed production to 25,000 tonnes per year; rehabilitate 21,000 hectares of irrigated lands; and develop 81,000 hectares of new rain-fed rice lands. Ghana targets a 30% rise in rice production from 1.14 million tonnes to 2.4 million tonnes per annum at the end of the project’s term.

Burkina Faso, Egypt develop appetite for locally grown wheat

Until recently, wheat consumed in Burkina Faso is almost entirely imported. With the Russia-Ukraine war sending prices to new record highs, the country has had a change of heart. It wants some of the wheat it uses to be produced locally and is ready to make significant budgetary allocations to make that ambition a reality. In March, the Burkinabe government channeled 113.2 million CFA francs (US$184,653) to boost wheat production to reduce imports which cover almost all the consumption needs of the country. The government has also partnered with the Institute for the Environment and Agricultural Research (INERA) to enable farmers to have access to high-quality seeds. As part of this new partnership, INERA researchers have committed to initially making 10 tonnes of seeds available to the Ministry of Agriculture for the benefit of farmers. According to the authorities, 50 varieties of soft wheat and 49 varieties of durum wheat for making couscous are already being tested in the commune of Farakoba in the Hauts-Bassins region. It is however important to note that this is not the first time that the Burkinabe are attempting to produce their wheat locally. It is therefore remains to be seen whether these latest efforts will bear any fruit.

Upper North, however, lies a country that has figured out how to grow wheat in the desert. Egypt, North Africa’s largest and most prosperous economy, has been growing wheat from as far back as 6000BC. Production was initially concentrated around the Nile river but as population grew, more land has been reclaimed further away from the Nile basin. In 2022, Egypt’s wheat production amounted to approximately 9.8 million metric tons, making it the largest producer of the commodity in Africa despite its location in a desert. Still, this was not enough forcing the country to import some 9.5 million metric tonnes to meet demand. As Russia and Ukraine were its major supplier, the war has meant that Egypt has had trouble sourcing the commodity. The government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi wants to further reduce its reliance on imported wheat by expanding the land under wheat farming by 2 million  acres in the next two years. Although Egypt is awake to the reality that it may never achieve wheat self-sufficiency, by increasing acreage and using high yielding varieties, the country hopes to at least supply 70% of its own wheat demand by 2025, InshAllah.

Every dark cloud has a silver lining

Every dark has a silver lining and so is the Russo-Ukrainian war. By curtailing supply of essential agricultural commodities, the war certainly exacerbated food insecurity in many regions across the world. As a result of the war, WFP reports that the number of people facing acute food insecurity had risen by 100 million to a record 349 million people across 79 countries. This in addition to the human cost of the war is certainly the regrettable aftermath.  The silver lining is the realization it brought to many countries; that they could never achieve food security if a significant portion of their staple food was sourced from international markets. The results has been a greater focus on agriculture in Africa and the Middle East, two regions disproportionately affected by the war. From UAE in the Arabian Desert to Kenya in the East African coast of the Indian Ocean, countries are investing in agriculture and through various strategies, they are moving closer to food security now more than ever before. Were it not for the war, what we see today may not have happened at the pace which it does. That’s the silver lining.

This feature appeared in the April 2023 issue of Milling Middle East & Africa. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE