Africa looks at indigenous crops to overcome food shortages

Food import bills have soared across the continent as global prices trade near a record high amid Ukraine crisis

A food vendor awaits customers at the fruits depot at the Mile 12 International food market in Lagos, Nigeria. EPA
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Africa is looking to indigenous crops to tackle a worsening food crisis after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine boosted the price of imported wheat.

Alternatives such as cassava, fonio and teff could help plug the gap, alongside increasing the output of hardier strains of wheat. But the transition will require more funding for research and marketing, plus the rollout of crops better suited to the continent, said Makhtar Diop, managing director of the International Finance Corporation.

“There are other cereals in Africa that have been in my view very much underused and things that we eat in our countries,” Mr Diop, a Senegalese national, told Bloomberg on the sidelines of last week’s Africa CEO Forum in Abidjan.

African food import bills have soared as global prices trade near a record high after Russia’s invasion sharply reduced Ukraine’s exports of grain. Food stress is expected to affect more than 60 million people in eastern and southern Africa by next month, with 43 million West Africans at risk from nutritional insecurity.

In Mali, Yolélé Foods — co-founded by New York-based Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam and Philip Teverow — is investing in a factory to process fonio, a protein-rich grain grown in West Africa.

The surge in wheat prices has highlighted “the folly of relying upon imported grain,” Mr Teverow said. “And the folly of not turning to crops that have been adapted over millennia to the climate and the soil of West Africa.”

In Nigeria, processors are producing more cassava starch and flour after collaborating with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Ndidi Nwuneli, co-founder of Sahel Consulting Agriculture and Nutrition, said.

“I’m excited that our people are switching to locally sourced, high-quality, nutritious alternatives and that processors are also being compelled to look inward and see what can we find in our own backyard,” Ms Nwuneli said.

Psaltry International processes about 400 tonnes of cassava tubers daily in Nigeria’s southwest for major food and beverage companies. It’s growing new varieties of cassava to make starch and flour that are used as an additive or filler in many products.

“We’re getting more orders from our offtakers because they can’t get wheat,” said Psaltry chief executive Yemisi Iranloye.

Teff, a key ingredient to make an Ethiopian staple known as injera, is also increasingly being used as a gluten-free, high-fibre substitute to flour.

But the shift isn’t happening fast enough. African farmers need more funding and logistics support to fill the gap, Ms Iranloye said.

“The crisis has met us in a state of unpreparedness,” she said.

Updated: June 25, 2022, 9:20 AM