BY: Olukayode Oyeleye
ALMOST FOUR WEEKS AFTER the Russian forces began to unleash military attack on Ukraine, shock waves have been sent across the globe on energy and food. In the area of food, in particular, influential voices have expressed concerns about the immediate and long-term impact of the unilateral war that has devastated parts of Ukraine. In the words of Qu Dongyu, director-general of the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), with the battle’s intensity and duration uncertain, “the likely disruptions to agricultural activities of these two major exporters of staple commodities could seriously escalate food insecurity globally, when international food and input prices are already high and vulnerable.”
The impacts are already being felt and the magnitude could be greater depending on the duration and intensity of the conflict. Russia and Ukraine supply a quarter of the world’s wheat exports and these are produced from contiguous areas near their common border, now under military activities. Reports from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have indicated that the conflict in the Black Sea has disrupted the flow of grains from the region and caused great uncertainty in global grain trade. “Ukraine has suspended port operations for commercial activities since February 24. Russian grain movement through the Black Sea is also affected by exceptionally high transaction challenges. In response, grain prices have soared for all major exporters.” The USDA affirmed that “this month’s represents an initial assessment of the short-term impacts as a result of this action. Wheat, corn, and barley are the major grains supplied by Ukraine and Russia.”
On wheat alone, Ukraine is estimated to account for 10 percent and Russia for 16 percent of global wheat exports in marketing year 2021/22, which began in July. The majority of Ukraine’s exports are shipped in the first few months of the marketing year. The implication is that the effect of the physical reduction in supplies may begin to be felt more after July. Of all the big producers of wheat in the world, China comes top with 134.3 million metric tonnes (MMT), followed by India with 98.5 MMT. Russia comes next, with 85.9 MMT, then the United States produces 47.3 MMT, France 36.9 MMT, Australia 31.8 MMT and Canada at 30 MMT. Pakistan produces 26.7 MMT, while Ukraine 26.2 MMT and Germany produces 24.5 MMT. Africa and the Middle East are big importers of wheat as the FAO affirms that Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh and Iran buy 60 percent of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. In particular, Egypt is reportedly the world’s biggest importer of wheat.
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The scale of importation of wheat in Nigeria is also a cause for alarm. According to official claims of the federal government in 2021, Nigeria spends over $2 billion on the importation of wheat yearly, thus constituting one of the key contributors to the nation’s huge foreign import bill. This is because millers have had to resort to importing wheat to meet the huge demand for wheat by-products. A claim attributed to President Muhammadu Buhari in November 2021 that zero importation of wheat into Nigeria will be his legacy when he leaves office in 2023 is yet to be corroborated on the field with practical policy implementation. With the ripples coming from Ukraine and Russia, Nigeria has to brace for Russian invasion’s aftermath as some wheat-importing countries are already reacting to increase in price of wheat-based products.
The effect of wheat price increase in the global market and availability for export would have been minimally felt in Nigeria if the highly publicised cassava bread project had continued. Cassava flour could easily have served as a buffer and a cushion for prices and quantity of flour needed locally. Cassava bread has been in the making in Nigeria for quite a while. Research Institutes such as the Federal Institute for Industrial Research, Oshodi (FIIRO) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, have made many recipes of bread and confectionery products from a blend of cassava flour and wheat flour to varying degrees of inclusion. Official government policy later gave a fillip to the popularisation and acceptability of cassava bread. The industry picked cassava bread commercial production up for the first time in 2011 after four major bakers attended a ministerial meeting at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Abuja. However, only one stood out with assorted recipes and various degrees of inclusion of cassava. UTC, a food processing company, was most prominent in promoting cassava bread commercially at 10 percent inclusion. Work has already been perfected on 50 percent cassava flour inclusion in cookies, chin-chin and puff-puff, according to an informed source.
Nigeria still adopts a laid-back attitude to cassava flour as a substitute for wheat. A change in consumers’ response can be actualised if the industry takes a practical business approach to the use of cassava flour in the various wheat-based products. Nigerians were not used to noodles until early 1990s when some Asians introduced these into the Nigerian market. Now, noodles have become household names and an integral part of Nigerian diets. Cassava is an African crop, with Nigeria as the highest producer in tonnage, but not in monetary worth because of limited value addition. Unconfirmed report stated that 59.4 million tonnes were produced in 2021. Cassava production in Nigeria is principally in the hands of smallholder farmers who produce cassava primarily for home direct consumption. However, the supply has been unable to meet the huge demand. For instance, it is estimated that the supply-demand gap for High-Quality Cassava Flour stands at about 485,000 metric tonnes (MT) per annum while the gap for cassava starch is about 290,000MT.
The widespread commercial use of cassava flour could significantly bring down the foreign exchange outflows on wheat import. If 75 percent of all bakeries – small and large scale – in Nigeria use 10 percent inclusion of cassava flour and confectioneries use 50 percent inclusion, this will save Nigeria nearly half a billion dollars annually in forex outflows. The use of cassava flour would have provided a good pedestal for Nigeria in international diplomacy as Nigeria has the opportunity of introducing cassava flour to countries within and outside Africa as partial substitution for wheat flour. This would also have been a huge foreign exchange revenue earner for Nigeria.
In Africa, Egypt, the largest importer of wheat, can benefit from cassava flour initiative as Nigeria can easily export the flour into Egypt. Geopolitics is one factor that could help Nigeria’s cause in this case. This seems more feasible than depending on any of the neighbouring countries for an elusive supply, which will be made more precarious by the diplomatic stand-off between Egypt and Ethiopia on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Sudan, another potential wheat-substitute importer, is also locked in a war of attrition with Ethiopia for the same reason Egypt is. The filling of the dam will undoubtedly affect the capability of Sudan and Egypt for irrigation farming, needed in part for wheat production in North Africa. The Sahel region of Africa is not too conducive for wheat production from a purely agronomic standpoint as wheat requires a window of cold period for effective filling of the ears, a condition that is not common in the very hot Sahel zone.
The East African countries of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia have extensive arid environments that can hardly support any cropping. Perhaps with irrigation, parts of those countries could be used for wheat production, but in the immediate future, self-sufficiency seems very unlikely. Thus, cassava flour could serve as a partial substitute for wheat in those countries. The same applies to the food-insecure Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, drought-prone Madagasgar and a significant part of South Africa – particularly the west coast around Cape Town where drought is rampant. Many countries in Central Africa have established records that they are well suited for cassava production, particularly the DR Congo, as well as Mozambique in the eastern coast. They too can adopt the cassava flour initiative to cut down their dependence on wheat importation and the flight of their foreign exchange. This Ukraine-Russia war provides an opportunity for Nigeria to export its own staples in processed and refined forms to many of these countries within Africa under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), to promote local stuff. In its refined form, cassava flour compares well with wheat flour. It is a good alternative source of flour for those averse to gluten due to allergy.
Innovation on cassava flour use is making waves outside Nigeria. Toyin, a Nigerian in the US, in a recent Forbes publication, disclosed that she makes pancakes, cakes, breads, muffins and waffles, using cassava flour she buys from Psaltry, a cassava processing plant based in Oyo State, Nigeria. If a Nigerian is introducing West African flavours to American palates in the form of everyday American staples, then, why can’t Nigerians at home produce and consume such?
Praising Toyin’s ingenuity, Forbes magazine alluded to “just as Starbucks adds Nigerian Hibiscus to make its Passion Tea, Toyin is spicing up traditional American dishes, such as pancakes, bread and muffins, with flavourful, West African ingredients.” There is probably no better time to bring cassava flour into Nigeria’s mainstream food recipes than now.