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The humble wheat farmer who could save a region

July 23, 2022
topic:Sustainable Agriculture
tags:#Cameroon, #wheat, #Sustainable Agriculture, #Ukraine war, #food security
by:Isaac Genna Forchie
More than half of Cameroon's wheat is imported. Yet, the country has the potential to produce enough of the grain to feed its population and be left with a surplus.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, 2022, few Cameroonians, if any, imagined this conflict could affect them in any way - not least their daily bread. But several weeks into the war, what was initially viewed as a purely Eastern European affair began having a boomerang effect on Cameroon's struggling wheat sector.

The price of wheat flour - the key ingredient in baking bread - doubled overnight from FCFA 16,000 (€25.94) per 50kg to FCFA 32,000 (€49.89). At least 65 percent of wheat imported to Cameroon comes from Russia. This is twice (34 percent) the fraction imported from other African nations.

But there is much more to Cameroon's wheat deficit than these external forces: wheat production in the country has been neglected for quite some time. 

Now, one farmer is leading efforts to unlock the country's wheat production potential.

When 44-year-old Basilius Fondzenyuf Tatah took interest in wheat cultivation in 2016 in his native Oku community in north-western Cameroon, it was principally for research purposes. But persistent wheat scarcity pushed the father of three to engage in wheat production full-swing. 

A prolonged crossfire between Cameroonian soldiers and armed separatists fighting for a break-away state made it impossible for Fondzenyuf to access the majority of his farmland, but he nonetheless managed to produce about 3,000kg of wheat in 2021. 

The passionate farmer believes Cameroon has what it takes to produce wheat that can serve the entire central African sub region with adequate state support. To buttress his argument, he has trained young Cameroonians to spearhead the production of 10,000 tons of wheat every 120 days, beginning in 2024.

"Wheat is the easiest crop to cultivate in Cameroon," Fondzenyuf told FairPlanet.

The farmer has cultivated more than 20 different types of crops, and likens the wheat production process to that of another common cereal - maize.

"It takes very little time [to cultivate wheat], given that Cameroon is blessed with all the essential environmental factors," Fondzenyuf said. "After clearing and tilling, the field is partitioned into planting plots - with each plot spanning four to five meters for level terrains, and three meters in sloppy environments."

1-1.5 meters separate each plot from the other. 

"That’s a passage for farm control," Fondzenyuf said. "Then I create planting canals with a depth of a finger's length, giving a 30cm gap between canals. When there is need, I spread NPK 20 10 10 fertiliser and cover with a centimetre layer of soil before placing my seeds and covering them with soil.

"Sixty days after germination, I add some fertilisers to boost wheat bearing. I end by spraying an insecticide just before flouring," Fondzenyuf concluded.

New Investments 

Recognising the country's potential when it comes to wheat production and observing the strides already made by individuals like Fondzenyuf, the government of Cameroon on 5 July, 2022 allocated some FCFA 10.3 billion (€16million) to boost wheat farming efforts.

Part of the money has already been made available to the Research Institute for Agricultural Development, known by the French acronym IRAD. The subvention is in line with a May 2022 African Development Bank decision to allocate a FCFA 927 billion (€1.5 billion) facility to avert an imminent food crisis on the continent. 

While state allocation of funds might take a few months to trickle down to local farmers, Fondzenyuf says the grains he is planting now (mid-July 2022) will be harvested in December.

Cameroon already produces other cereals like maize and sorghum, and Fondzenyuf has yet to receive state support. Whether it comes or not, he intends to invest into a 10,000 hectare land donated to him by the traditional ruler of the community.

In Ethiopia, an irrigated scheme was needed to produce some 3.6 million metric tons of wheat on a 1.6 million hectares over a five-year period.

But farmer Fondzenyuf rejoices that Cameroon's natural endowment is enough to catapult the country's wheat production capacity.

"In Cameroon, there is water flowing everywhere," he said. "We have the fertile soils, human and material resources needed. It’s about creating a conducive situation where farmers and those involved in the production and delivery chain can excel." 

Wheat Cultivation Gaining Ground 

A 1990 trial project proved that north-western Cameroon was a suitable spot for wheat production. But the government representative in charge of agriculture and rural development in the region, Thomas Fuchi, regrets that many farmers have yet to take advantage of this. 

"The cultivation of wheat at that time was not accompanied by transformation," Fuchi told FairPlanet. "Wheat is not one of the cultural crops of the area. For this reason, those who produced did not know what to do with it." Wheat needs heavy investments, and agronomic practices are not easily managed locally, he lamented.

But Fondzenyuf is changing the narrative. His wheat grains have so far been transformed into wheat flour, cakes, beer, animal feed and five other types of food products that are already circulating in Cameroonian markets. "Brewery firms are behind me," he said. 

Boosting the Local Economy

Ndah David Tabiy, a Cameroonian household name in baking, is proprietor of Oku Honey Bread. With over 30 years of experience and his bread cherished across the country, the baker says he prefers using flour processed from locally grown wheat. 

"While all the other characteristics are similar, bread made of ‘Oku wheat’ has more weight and a more natural taste," Tabiy told FairPlanet. 

His shift to using locally produced wheat flour has also been motivated by the "huge demand from locals to consume local bread."

When the wheat crisis began, Ndah had to lay off some of his staff. But with supply from the Oku field, he has been able to re-hire the workers. Fuchi of the Cameroonian government believes the state ought to further invest in the sector by providing machinery, inputs and high quality seeds. This, according to him, would lead to "good production and thereafter facilitate transformation into products that are readily consumed."

Scholars and Researches At Work 

The growing interest in wheat cultivation does not end at the level of farmers and the government. Agricultural training schools in the central African country have tailored their curriculum to develop solutions to the country's food problems.

"We train our students on crops that are grown in Cameroon, and among them is wheat," said Nyamnjoh Veronica Mboh, an agricultural engineer and lecturer at the Regional College of Agriculture in Cameroon.

"With this current crisis, we lay more emphasis on cereal, giving learners the necessary schooling and technical itinerary to follow for the production of wheat," she added. 

Elsewhere, Dr Eddy Ngonkeu, a senior researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development in Yaounde, Cameroon, is championing a project to progressively replace imported flour with locally made cassava and potato-based bread recipes. 

"To have bread that consumers should afford, we make it 50 percent local flour and 50 percent imported flour," he told FairPlanet.

Image by Africa RISING/ Branislav Cika

Article written by:
Isaac Genna Forchie
Embed from Getty Images
As the war between Russia and Ukraine persists, prices of bread and other wheat products continue to soar in Africa as 34 percent of wheat used in the continent is imported from Russia.
© Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images
“Wheat is the easiest crop to cultivate in Cameroon,” Fondzenyuf told FairPlanet.
© Africa RISING/ Branislav Cika
“Wheat is the easiest crop to cultivate in Cameroon,” Fondzenyuf told FairPlanet.
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