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close this bookCERES No. 097 - January - February 1984 (FAO Ceres, 1984, 50 p.)
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View the documentPolitics, tastes cramp scheme to cut wheat imports

Politics, tastes cramp scheme to cut wheat imports

The serious problems being encountered by many African countries with regard to both balance of pay meets and food production have on, again underscored the question of wheat and flour imports made in response to the growing demand for white bread. The influence of consumer habits in rich countries combined with failure to develop domes agriculture has placed these fragile economies in an extremely difficult position. Between 1970 and 1980 African imports of wheat increased at an average rate of 13 per cent annually in terms of volume and 24 per cent in terms of value, reaching in 1980, the level of 15 million metric tons worth US$3.1 billion. Paradoxically, while swelling urban populations create a much larger demand for cereals, especially wheat, the number of domestic primary producers declines, even where demand exceeds local output. To confront the dilemma of importing ever large quantities of food for which they are unable to pay, African countries must increase agricultural productivity, responding both to the social changes produced by urbanization a to the need to find substitutes for cereal imports.

Bread, however, cannot continue definitely to be made from import' wheat, or, for that matter, even from domestic wheat, since, of 375 million people in Africa south of the Sahara 210 million live in areas where wheat is extremely difficult to grow. Eve in other areas where it is possible to grow wheat, production costs would be prohibitive and would involve the importation of expensive inputs.

For this reason interest in composite flours is growing. These are flours produced by mixing different cereals, such as wheat, millet, maize, or sorghum, or mixing cereals with roots tubers, such as cassava, or with legumes, such as soybeans. Obviously e bread that can be made from these flours varies greatly in flavour, four, and consistency, depending on e techniques used and on the proportion of each ingredient. These flours, again, can be used in the preparation of many other foods, such as gari, foufou, or kokonte, cording to the food customs of different countries.

Flour from wheat has a higher protein content than most other flours, 11 per cent as against one per cent for cassava, or eight per cent for maize, millet, sorghum, and rice. Soya flour, on the other hand, contains 50 per cent protein. The protein quality of wheat flour, however, limited by a lack of lysine content. The enrichment of wheat flour with soya, which contains a much greater entity of lysine, makes a much more nutritious bread. Even diluting wheat flour with other flours lacking lysine would not affect the value the product so long as it was not the only basic foodstuff. FAO has been working in association the a number of African, Asian, and tin American countries to promote use of composite flours in baking. Senegal, for example, the Food Technology Institute (Institut de technologie alimentaire), with assistance m FAO, has already produced a ad containing 30 per cent millet is 70 per cent wheat, although in response to consumer tastes the proportion of millet was reduced to 15 cent. Unfortunately, too, persistent drought resulted in poor let harvests and forced suspension of production of this bread. There have also been experiments in Brazil, not yet advanced to the commercial stage, with flours that include maize, soya, wheat, and cassava, in which a three per cent proportion of soya compensates for the protein-content loss occasioned by substituting cassava for 15 per cent of the wheat content. But in this case as well, the price of soya and the necessity of adapting the product to consumer tastes also enforced a delay in development.

In the Sudan, baguettes containing 15 per cent sorghum along with wheat have been produced in a pilot bakery operated by the Food Research Centre with assistance from FAO, and these are already being sold at the rate of 2 000 a day. In other countries, including Gabon, Upper Volta, Niger, Togo, Tanzania, and the Gambia, tests in the production and marketing of bread with different proportions of maize, sorghum, and cassava are being undertaken. Centres have been established at Dakar and Khartoum to provide training in composite flour development for west, central, and northern Africa in the first instance, and for eastern and southern Africa in the second.

However, various technical problems and, even more so, political ones, are hindering the establishment of commercial operations and the spread of a milling and baking industry based on local cereals that would substitute for wheat imports. The first, and perhaps most important, of these is that neither domestic growers, nor wheat importers, nor millers, nor even in some instances the concerned ministries, are inclined to look with favour upon the introduction of other raw materials, especially when these, at times, cost more than imported cereals, even if the accounts are payable in local currency. Moreover, there are cases, such as in Nigeria, where there are no mills that can process other flours. These other flours, in practice, are ground by the peasants themselves in the traditional manner. They lack the quality required for baking and are seldom produced with sufficient regularity or in adequate quantities to permit full-scale commercial production.

Moreover, the price of flour produced from imported wheat is about half the price of flour from cassava, maize, corn, or millet. Even allowing for the burden that imported wheat places on foreign exchange transactions, it is usually consistent in quantity and quality. In order to replace just 10 per cent of the 1.5 million tons of wheat Nigeria imports to make bread, it would be necessary to develop consistent production from 75 000 hectares of land worked in a capital-intensive manner, or 150 000 hectares cultivated in the traditional way.

In other cases, such as Sierra Leone, overvaluation of the national currency artificially lowered the cost of imported wheat in relation to local products and increased the dependence on imported cereals and urban demand for white bread. (Nor has such demand always been restricted to the urban centres.) Although this lowered the cost of bread to urban consumers, it favoured above all else the private importers of wheat, who were not always under government control.

In order to have local flours included in bread on a massive scale, it would be necessary to make the cereals and flours preferred by the rich much more costly than the local products, either through the creation of an import tax or through subsidies on domestic products destined for the food industry. This could be combined with the establishment of higher prices as incentives to domestic producers with premiums granted for uniform quality. Undoubtedly this would temporarily increase the price of a staple product and could have political consequences.

Another important problem is the difficulty of marketing a local product when producers are scattered throughout a large country that is lacking in adequate transportation and the same is true of retail outlets. A special administration would be needed to organize the collection, transport, storage, grading, and sale of the products in order to avoid sudden changes in the quality of raw material, which could be disastrous for the baking industry. At the same time there would have to be an intense publicity campaign to present the new bread as modern and prestigious. This would need to be accompanied by wide distribution with adequate margins to gain the support of merchants.

Other considerations: priced too low, a product may be considered inferior. If it is not given adequate publicity, a product that looks and tastes different might not be able to supplant "French" bread, traditionally, in consumers' minds, the bread c quality. Cultural problems are thus linked with political ones in the exigencies of overall planning for the substitution of imported wheat with the political will and tenacity, required to change popular tastes as much as the actual system for the production and distribution of bread.

It is possible, nonetheless, to introduce and maintain local products in a manner similar to imported one and it would bring great advantage to Africa. If imported wheat could be partially replaced, at least where technically possible, the continent would have to produce an addition three million tons of domestic cereals. This would require much effort to overcome problems created by drought, lack of transport, inadequate distribution of land, and deficient marketing networks. However, it would open up a great potential market for African farmers, if they could be assured that their output would bring a good return and in the same time frame that growers of other commercial crops are paid for sales to domestic and foreign industries. In this case, not only would the balance of payments situation of African countries improve, but there would also be long-term improvements in the general agriculture situation and the standard of living of the rural population. The tempo of forced urbanization would be reduced.

The imprecation in many religion to "give us our daily bread" does not specify kind, colour, or form. And the quest for this bread, synonymous with food, is always a quest for independence. It is a problem con fronting many countries today.