A history of wheat finds the crop gaining popularity during the colonial era when white bread made from imported wheat was mostly consumed by wealthy foreigners.
‘Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet—that is imperialism.’
— Thomas Sankara
The past couple of months have seen a lot of discussion in the media about the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on food security in Africa, highlighting the continent’s staggering agricultural trade deficit. Bringing this closer to home, a question that increasingly resonates concerning Nigeria’s high levels of wheat importation is, why do we eat what we eat? This article in Quartz made me recall a conversation I had with my uncle a few years ago, over a meal of ewedu and amala dudu (black amala made from yam flour), a staple food in Ibadan. My uncle explained that the predominant form of amala when he was growing up in rural Ibadan was amala lafun (white amala), a variation of the same meal made from cassava flour. In the past, amala dudu was mostly consumed by the small urban Ibadan population, due to yam’s cultural relevance and high price marking it as a food for special occasions. As a result of increased rapid urbanization over the past decade, and higher supply of yam due to increased local production, amala dudu gradually displaced amala lafun as the predominant variation of amala consumed in Ibadan. Barring a quick google search I made during the conversation with my uncle, I have never seen this white amala my uncle spoke of.
THE RISE OF WHEAT CONSUMPTION
There is a rich story in every plate of food—a complex interplay of social, economic and political factors involved in establishing foods as ‘staple’ in any society. The story I tell here is that of wheat consumption in Nigeria, which has increased from 300,000 tonnes in 1970 to about six million tonnes as of 2021, a 20x increase in two generations. Over 90 per cent of wheat supply in Nigeria is used to produce wheat flour, which is mostly used in making bread, pasta and noodles—staple foods in today’s Nigeria. According to FAOSTAT data, Nigeria currently spends about $1.5 billion annually (five per cent of its entire import bill) on wheat importation to sustain this astronomical increase in consumption. This increase has been primarily driven by rising appetites for ‘foreign’ convenience foods and baked products. Strikingly, pasta production accounted for up to 15 per cent of wheat flour usage in Nigeria in 2020, from less than 1 per cent in 1999. During my research for this story, I told a close friend these statistics and their response was, ‘well, we have to eat bread and pasta, right?’ Let’s try to answer this question.
A HISTORY OF WHEAT IMPORTATION
To better understand the rising demand for wheat flour in Nigeria, it is important to understand the history of wheat consumption in Nigeria. Wheat is a non-traditional crop in Nigeria and began to seep into the Nigerian food system during the colonial era, when white bread made from imported wheat was mostly consumed by wealthy foreigners. This laid the foundation for the status of prestige and ‘modernity’ afforded to white bread, which led to consumption by wealthy Nigerians at the time and would later contribute to emergence of white bread as a popular food in urban areas in later years. In the early 1970s, an intricate combination of three factors—aggressive export of cereals by United States due to surplus production after World War II; food production crises in Nigeria following the civil war; and increased government revenues due to the oil boom in this period—led to a drastic increase in wheat importation to Nigeria. Until this period, the consumption of white bread, which is now seen as a staple food in many Nigerian communities, was limited. To meet this increased demand for bread in this period, several of the current leading flour millers in Nigeria began operations.
Wheat consumption had reached a peak of 1.5 million tonnes in 1985, just before the massive oil price crash (from $35 per barrel in 1980 to less than $10 in 1986) which put a huge strain on Nigeria’s resources. Consequently, in 1987, Nigeria imposed a ban on wheat importation—which accounted for over 90 per cent of wheat consumption due to limited domestic wheat production—resulting in a massive drop in wheat consumption to less than 250,000 tonnes in 1989. The import ban stimulated efforts to increase local production which reached a peak of 140,000 tonnes in 1987. This was still insufficient to meet the temporarily decreased demand for wheat products.
Wheat production in Nigeria was (and is still) constrained by a combination of high temperatures, irregular heavy rains during rainy season and water shortages during dry season. The 1987 ban of wheat importation was eventually lifted in the 1990s, allegedly due to pressure from local and international vested interests. In the late 1990s, introduction of other wheat-based products such as instant noodles and spaghetti into the Nigerian market to satisfy increasing consumer appetites for these foreign convenience foods further increased demand for imported wheat in Nigeria to the levels we see today.
The wheat industry in Nigeria has experienced major consolidation in the last decade—Flour Mills of Nigeria acquired its major competitor, Honeywell Flour Mills, in 2019 while Olam International acquired other industry leaders, Crown Flour Mills and Dangote Flour Mills, in 2010 and 2019 respectively. Dufil Prima Foods, owned by Singaporean consumer foods giant Tolaram Group, accounts for almost 10 per cent of wheat importation in Nigeria to manufacture its flagship product, Indomie Noodles. These giant millers, who drive majority of wheat importation into Nigeria, employ over 20,000 workers and are key stakeholders in the Nigerian economy, making a repetition of the 1987 ban rather unlikely in the short to medium term.
FRAMING THE ISSUE: DEMAND OR SUPPLY?
While bread is largely consumed across all socio-economic groups in Nigeria, the consumption of other wheat products, such as pasta, noodles, biscuits and cakes, is concentrated among the more ‘well-off’ in society. Although it would be valid to attribute some of this consumption to preference for convenience foods due to fast-paced urban lifestyles, there is an element of consumer ecocentrism—the preference of ‘foreign products’ as a means to enhance perceived social status—driving this change in dietary preferences in segments such as the ‘Indomie generation’, a term used to describe the generation-z (Gen-Z) members of the Nigerian population. This preference could partly explain sustained demand for these wheat-based products despite increasing food prices in the country.
The manner in which an issue is framed, from its causes to its consequences, ultimately guides the nature of proposed solutions. The prevailing narrative today is that Nigeria’s dependence on wheat imports, primarily from Russia and United States, undermines our food security and sovereignty by damaging local production and increasing our vulnerability to global food crises. Based on this framing of the problem, solutions proffered have been centered around increasing domestic wheat production. Wheat production in Nigeria is currently about 60,000 tonnes (1 per cent of consumption), with highest ever production quantity (165,000 tonnes) reached in 2011, a far cry from consumption of over five million tonnes.
Costly irrigation systems are typically required to address the aforementioned challenges to production of wheat in Nigeria, and the past decade has seen massive unsuccessful investments into construction of large-scale irrigation systems by the government. Such supply-side framing of food security issues—evidenced by the government’s recent decision to ban rice importation to stimulate the local rice industry—discounts the history of wheat consumption in Nigeria. While this framing has indeed accelerated Nigeria’s journey towards rice self-sufficiency, domestic production of wheat is much more challenging due to different climatic requirements (rice production in Nigeria is predominantly rainfed while wheat farming requires irrigation systems). Given this, perhaps it would be more worthwhile to frame the wheat situation as a demand-side issue, which will implore us to scrutinize the unnecessarily mammoth consumption of wheat products in Nigeria.
WHAT COULD THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE?
‘Well, we have to eat bread and pasta, right?’ Not at the expense of economic sustainability. History is rife with examples of uprisings which have been influenced by the availability and cost of bread. These include bread shortages igniting the French revolution in the late 18th century and a 200 per cent increase in bread prices playing a central role in the more recent 2018/19 protests in Sudan. Nigeria is currently spending limited foreign exchange to sustain high demand for wheat products, further contributing to weakening of its currency and increasing inflation levels, with bread prices projected to increase by 50 per cent or more. Although wheat has indeed become a mainstay in the Nigerian food system, the demand for this non-traditional crop is unnecessary and is quickly becoming unsustainable. Each time I travel to a new country, or even new cities within Nigeria, I’m fascinated by the huge variation in dietary habits, and I often ask—why do you eat what you eat?
In Brazil, the fourth largest cassava producer in the world, pao de queijo (cheese bread) is a popular breakfast dish made from tapioca flour derived from cassava. Nigeria is the largest producer of cassava in the world, yet almost all bread consumed is made of over 90 per cent wheat flour. Masa, a popular Northern Nigerian food I recently had for the first time having only lived in southwestern Nigeria, is a spongy bread-like meal typically made with rice. Similar to cassava, Nigeria is the largest rice producer in Africa, and this could provide opportunities to gradually shift consumption from wheat-based bread to alternative convenience foods made from locally produced traditional crops. Although there have been some efforts by the government to encourage use of composite flour (a mix of cassava and wheat flour) for bread production, most of these efforts have been unsuccessful due to insufficient investment into development of the cassava value chain, technical challenges around the product shelf life, and resistance from bakers and leading flour millers.
Dr Victor Iyama, the president of the Federation of Agricultural Commodity Association of Nigeria, has previously explained for instance, that, ‘millers are not interested in the cassava bread issue. Especially because most of them are foreigners and most interested in wheat.’
During my research for this story, the owner of a mid-sized bakery in Lagos also told me, ‘We use wheat flour from either Dangote or Flour Mills of Nigeria to make our products. We prefer the wheat flour because we can use the same one to make bread and cakes.’
Adopting a demand-side framing of the issue implores the government and other relevant stakeholders to invest in developing value chains of traditional crops such as cassava, rice, maize and millet. Moreover, due to climatic requirements, wheat production in Nigeria is exclusive to a few northern states such as Kano, Jigawa and Zamfara, rendering already limited domestic production vulnerable to the region’s insecurity challenges. Rice and cassava, on the other hand, are produced across several regions in the country, with this diversification making the supply chain for these crops more resistant to these challenges. The current global food crisis has highlighted the curious case of unsustainable wheat importation in Nigeria. Food culture is dynamic, and preferences change over time depending on a myriad of factors. Despite the current large consumption of wheat products, Nigeria can promote the sustainability of its food economy through concerted efforts to shape the food culture of future generations by ensuring we eat what we produce. Perhaps I too will have a conversation with my nephew over breakfast in 30 years’ time, waxing lyrical about a time when I used to have wheat bread for breakfast while he picks up his phone to search for what this bread looked like⎈
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