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Picture: BLOOMBERG
Picture: BLOOMBERG

Global wheat prices are so high that African consumers are starting to ditch the grain from their diet.

Food producers in Kenya, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of  Congo (DRC), Nigeria and Cameroon say they are mixing cheaper alternatives into their breads, pastries and pastas. Local rice, manioc flour and sorghum are substituted for wheat, which has spiked about 40% this year as Russia’s invasion squeezed exports from Ukraine, one of the biggest shippers.

These domestic crops are less exposed to trade disruptions and global inflation, thus offering some protection from food prices that remain near record levels.

Kenya imports about 44% of its wheat from the Black Sea region, and the surging prices helped stoke inflation to 6.5% in April. Unga Group, the Nairobi-based maker of Exe brand wheat flour and Jogoo maize flour, is seeing a shift in sales to its Amana line of rice and pulses.

“There is a spike in the price of maize and wheat driving consumers to other alternatives,” MD Joseph Choge said. “Pulses and rice sales are growing while wheat is coming down.”

The farm-gate price of maize has doubled and millers are struggling to get enough supplies, he said.

Global supplies of wheat could shrink even more as India considers restricting exports after severe heatwaves damaged crops. 

Previously, the country slashed its production estimate for this season but said there was enough supply to meet domestic demand.

We could be seeing some pressure towards greater consumption of domestically produced coarse grains.
Shirley Mustafa, an economist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation

“We could be seeing some pressure towards greater consumption of domestically produced coarse grains,” said Shirley Mustafa, an economist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The FAO cut its 2022 outlook for global wheat production, saying the forecast for Ukraine remained below average. The war will reduce the harvested area by at least a fifth.

Egypt is the biggest buyer of wheat, with more than 80% of imports coming from Ukraine and Russia. Government purchases are running 13% behind last year.

Facing that sort of pressure, pasta-maker Egyptian Swiss Group is experimenting with new recipes using rice, maize and lentil flour. “The price is the name of the game,” said Ahmed El-Sebaie, a general manager.

Nestlé Nigeria, maker of Golden Morn cereal, is introducing more locally produced crops to its line-up. These include sorghum and soybeans.

In the DRC, the government approved a programme supporting the production of manioc flour to make bread and pastries. The flour is made from cassava. That could help the DRC reduce its dependence on imported wheat, which costs about $87m a year, minister of industry Julien Paluku said.

“If the majority of these products were made on the ground, we would suffer less from the Ukrainian crisis,” said Andre Wameso, the president’s deputy chief of staff for economic issues.

Cameroon imports about 1-million tonnes of wheat annually, ranking among the top 10 buyers in Sub-Saharan Africa. Declining domestic production prompted it to suspend exports of wheat flour, rice and cereals to neighbouring countries. The move came after the government raised prices for bread by 20% in March. In response, some food companies are pivoting to potatoes.

“The demand for Irish potatoes by bread producers has increased tremendously,” said Sylvanus Nsaichia Kiyung, a farmer in the northwest town of Santa. “I am planning to acquire more farmland and plant more potatoes to catch up with demand. All seven tonnes of potatoes I produced this year have been cleared.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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