Cassava, sorghum, millet, fonio… At a time of war in Ukraine and soaring food prices on world markets, should Africa rely more on its local crops to try to avoid the worst ? Since the start of the conflict on February 24, fears of a widespread food crisis on the continent have been mounting. As early as mid-March, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of the risk of a “hurricane of famines” in many countries massively importing their wheat and fertilizers from Ukraine and Russia.

In recent years, the continent has purchased nearly twice as much wheat from abroad as it has produced at home. And according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, eighteen African countries are net importers of wheat from Russia or Ukraine – Eritrea, Somalia and Egypt form the top three. However, its weight in the diet of populations should be put into perspective. “The majority of cereals consumed in Africa are produced locally,” insists Jean-René Cuzon, agricultural expert with the French Development Agency.

In fact, outside North Africa, wheat consumption remains marginal in most of the countries of the continent and remains above all linked to new consumption habits in cities. Sub-Saharan Africa is monitoring rice prices more closely, which is widely consumed, including in rural areas. For more than a decade, Africa has been thinking about increasing its food security by investing more in its agriculture. Beware of “wheat and rice obsessions,” warns David Laborde, a researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The way is still long

“Public research should focus on other local cereals such as millet and sorghum, whose yields are lower because they have received less investment,” he continues, while warning that “the to impose without them still being sufficiently productive would lead to a catastrophe”. Their virtues are however well identified, such as their nutritional potential and their resistance to drought. Sorghum and millet are already among the most widely grown cereals in sub-Saharan Africa – behind rice and maize – and are the main source of food for more than 50% of the population of the Sahel.

Their cultivation is also one of the eight priority crops identified by the African Development Bank in its strategy for the transformation of the continent’s agriculture by 2025, alongside wheat, rice and maize, beans, yam and cassava. This last tuber is already grown in abundance on the continent, and the marketing of cassava flour is gradually developing. In Nigeria, its incorporation into bread has been encouraged since 2012. Millet, sweet potato, cowpea: here and there, other flours complement wheat flour, but there is still a long way to go before they can be widely imposed.

“We need a lot of investments, certified seeds and irrigation systems that can increase their productivity, but also develop them on a large scale in order to stabilize their prices and make them affordable,” insists Moses Abukari, manager International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) project in Kenya. In this country, IFAD has promoted a flour blending policy adopted by the government and has developed a program to strengthen cereal production which concerns, among others, sorghum and millet.

To promote these local cultures, many challenges remain. Many cereals and plants grown in the countryside never reach the cities, due to a lack of storage facilities and adequate distribution channels. It also remains to convince consumers to put these products at the heart of their cooking. IFAD has trained 100,000 households in Kenya to use them in cakes, pasta or bread. According to specialists, support for the private agri-food sector is also necessary so that it can take hold of these traditional products and contribute to their development.