After teff wheat is the second most important food security crop in Ethiopia. Its production in Ethiopia for 2021/22 is projected at a record level of 5.52 million MT while corn is forecasted to be 9.4 million MT. The Government of Ethiopia (GOE) has identified top priorities that can increase the production and productivity of cereals through small and large-scale irrigation development, financing agricultural inputs, encouraging cluster farming, and reducing post-harvest loss.
When disaster and natural calamities occur in one corner of the world, the poor became highly vulnerable. It is witnessed that war, famine, and other natural and social ills seriously damage the lives of millions. A simple example at this particular moment is the war between Russia and Ukraine. As these two countries are the main providers of agricultural products like wheat and edible oil to the world market, countries have been suffering a shortage of such basic commodities. Not only that, but due to the current war, the fuel price hike created economic turmoil in many parts of the world.
As the basic commodities become expensive, even countries considered the most developed are trying their level best to meet the demands including by providing products to consumers at the subsidized price. It is observed that price inflation hit every boat in the world. Because of such global challenges, the government is trying to find a better way to come up with answers to the price inflation and scarcity of basic commodities. Ethiopia for a long has strived to find a way out.
There have been a number of actions taken to cope with the aforementioned problems. One of the most praised responses from the government is summer wheat production. It is reported that due to the war between Russia and Ukraine, the world unable to obtain the supply of wheat and other products from these countries. In this regard, in most African countries, demand for wheat products has been unmet. The problem also directly points to Ethiopia too. Ethiopia imports about 27% of its requirements of grain from Ukraine, and 15% from Russia, according to government data.
In the last five years, Ethiopia imported on average 1.5 million tons of wheat at an average cost of 700 million dollars annually. The current crisis between Russia and Ukraine coupled with climate change and population increase exacerbated the problem associated with the global wheat demand-supply chain resulting in a dramatic increase in price and limited availability in the global market even for those countries who can afford to buy at any cost. This has forced countries to expand local wheat production as much as possible and look for alternatives including changing food habits.
Understanding and prioritizing the main production constraints are important before embarking on the expansion of local wheat production. Wheat production in Ethiopia suffers from diseases (rusts, septoria, fusarium, etc.), soil acidity, declining soil fertility, terminal moisture stress, heat, mono-cropping, pre-harvest sprouting, and climate change. Furthermore, growing populations, increased rural-urban migration, low public and private investments, weak extension systems, inappropriate agricultural policies, and yield gaps because of low adoption of new technologies remain to be major challenges. To offset these challenges and achieve wheat self-sufficiency and export in Ethiopia, it is important to follow a two-pronged approach:
- Bridging the yield gap in traditional rainfed highland wheat growing areas through developing and scaling climate resilient high yielding varieties and associated integrated crop management practices; and
- Expanding wheat production in new frontiers of irrigated lowland areas through the developing and scaling of high yielding, heat tolerant, and rust resistant varieties with integrated crop management packages.
To this end, the government of Ethiopia along with different stakeholders and partners has started to expand wheat production in the lowlands of Ethiopia extensively using irrigation to substitute wheat import, achieve wheat self-sufficiency and create jobs along the wheat value chain. During the 2021/22 season, wheat is cultivated on a total area of 2.3 million (1.7 million ha rain-fed and more than 600,000 hectares of land have been covered by irrigated) hectares annually with a total production of 6.7 million tons of grain at average productivity of 3.0 and 4.0 t/ha under rain-fed and irrigated conditions, respectively during 2021/22. The rainfed wheat production is dominantly carried out during the main rainy season in Ethiopia (June to October) in the highlands of the country while irrigated wheat production is carried out from November–April in the lowlands of Ethiopia along the Awash, Wabe Shebele, and Omo river basins.
If wheat production continues boosted substituting imported wheat can be realized. To that end, conducive policies are introduced by the government helpful to producers and other operators in the value chain. Promoting the use of more inputs and new technologies, reducing marketing costs, and encouraging value addition (for example with additional processing) would make domestic wheat more competitive.
According to government reports, wheat import could be significantly reduced by 2023, and Ethiopia’s eyes for wheat self-sufficiency and export by 2025. Involvement of different stakeholders including farmer unions, youth groups, commercial farmers, seed growers, millers, banks, cooperatives, and deployment of favorable policies to enable the availability and accessibility of inputs, extension services, transportation, mechanization, and marketing infrastructures are key for achieving the wheat revolution in Ethiopia.
Two Major Wheat Production Systems
Wheat is one of the most widely adapted crops grown at different altitude ranges. Though there are high degrees of environmental variations within and between regions, based on moisture availability, cropping systems, and temperature regimes, wheat production in Ethiopia can be divided into two major production systems: (i) Rainfed and (ii) Irrigated production systems.
Rain Fed Production System
The rainfed production system exists dominantly during the summer-autumn seasons in the highlands and mid-altitude areas of Ethiopia across the different regions and it was the only system of wheat production up until recently. The wheat cultivation system in Ethiopia is a combination of traditional and modern practices. Most smallholder farmers use oxen for plowing, inputs (quality seed, inorganic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides), labor for weeding, sickles for harvesting, and animals for threshing followed by winnowing using local tools and labors. The harvested grain is stored for local consumption and the straw is used for animal feed. Surpluses are marketed through nearby outlets. However, the productivity of such a system is usually low and depends primarily on the availability of rainfall. Mechanized wheat production is implemented through cluster farming which is a mechanism whereby farmers willingly cluster their farms and adopt the same technological inputs including the use of types of machinery such as tractors, planters, and combine harvesters. The approach of cluster farming is increasing in many parts of Ethiopia and has contributed to better adoption of mechanization and inputs (seeds, fertilizers, chemicals, etc.) and improving productivity.
Different crop rotations such as legume-wheat, potato-wheat, or oil crops -wheat have been widely practiced in the rainfed production system for various known advantages including improving soil fertility by fixing atmospheric nitrogen, enhancing water use efficiency (WUE), diversification, and breaking the cycle of weeds, insect pests, and diseases. However, wheat after wheat production (mono-cropping) becomes widely implemented in those areas where mechanization has been widely adopted. Farmers in those areas do not want to grow legumes or oil crops in the rotation since there are no combine harvesters specific to these crops in addition to their low yield levels
Irrigated Wheat Production
Ethiopia is one of the countries in Africa with huge potential for irrigated wheat production. Though traditional small-scale irrigation has been implemented for thousands of years, Ethiopian agriculture has been fully dependent on rains until recently. Ethiopia has a potential of 5.3 million hectares of land suitable for irrigated agriculture using surface, ground, and rainwater sources. However, only less than 2% of this potential has been utilized to date.
Attention for irrigated wheat production was triggered with an attempt for off-season accelerated early generation seed production of stem rust-resistant wheat varieties at Worer ARC initiated by the international Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and EIAR through the USAID-supported wheat project in Ethiopia starting in 2008/09 cropping season. During the subsequent years, heat-tolerant wheat varieties of ICARDA origin have been tested and released by EIAR, and demonstrations and out-scaling of such heat-tolerant wheat varieties have been carried out in the Afar and Oromia regions in partnership with EIAR, MoA, farmers, and private sectors through the Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT) project supported by the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Following these eye-opening activities along with the huge demand for wheat and the need for import substitution, the government of Ethiopia has prioritized irrigated low land wheat production as a key strategy to ensure national food security. To this end, in 2019 a plan has been put in place to cultivate wheat in about 500,000 ha of available irrigable land along the Awash, Wabishebele, and Omo rivers basins (Figure 1) in the coming 5 years . In the year 2019/20, heat-tolerant wheat varieties have been cultivated in about 21,000 ha along these three river basins under irrigation. In 2020/21, over 187,000 ha of land has been cultivated using heat tolerant wheat varieties in the same river basins.
Data from the Ethiopia Agriculture Ministry estimates that the country will harvest some 2.4 million tonnes in the year 2021/22, compared to 1.42 million tonnes the prior year. This output is forecast to lower the country’s wheat deficit to just 400,000 tonnes in 2022 after an additional 600,000 hectares of land are being cultivated under irrigation across the entire country. The average yield level of the heat tolerant varieties under irrigation ranges from 4–7 t/ha. Motivated and encouraged by these achievements, the government of Ethiopia has set a plan to expand irrigated wheat production to a total of 1.5 million hectares in the coming 5 years.