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Putting wheat back in spotlight

Wheat farming

MALIRO—Wheat is a very important crop

Tough times do, indeed, bring a new consciousness.

At the height of Malawi’s confectionaries business in the early 1970s, wheat-farming was the in-thing, reminisces 70-year-old Maliteni Ngozo from Kanjuli Village in the area of Traditional Authority Kamenyagwaza in Dedza District.

“I used to be one of the people who, in my youthful days, used to cultivate wheat. At the time, an increased number of Malawians were getting interested in the confectionaries business.

“In fact, due to favourable government policies, I remember that we used to have a company called Press Bakeries in the country. It used to bake quality materials and, obviously, had to source wheat for use in bread-making,” he says.

And, then, for whatever reason, buyers’ interest in the wheat crop waned, resulting in reduced yield of wheat as there was hardly any demand.

“The situation got worse at the re-advent of multiparty politics in 1994, as trade liberalisation meant traders were free to source materials from wherever. I think what made the situation worse was the cost of inputs. It, through lopsided government policies, became easier for business people to import wheat from other countries than buy it locally,” Ngozo adds.

Slowly, but surely, the true motivational factor for wheat cultivation was lost in time, so much so that, as at now, Malawians are scratching their heads to understand what went wrong.

This is about to change, though, as researchers at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) have announced strides in the development of improved wheat varieties for farmers in the country.

Wheat is a key ingredient for the local baking industry but Malawi has, over the years, met its demand for wheat through imports.

The crop also ranks among the top three when it comes to common staple foods worldwide.

However, only one thousand tonnes of wheat were cultivated in Malawi in 2020, according to Food And Agriculture Organisation estimates.

This is very much on the lower side, prompting stakeholders in Malawi to launch efforts aimed at bringing back wheat’s lost glory.

At the centre of Malawi’s wheat rejuvenation efforts is Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Luanar Moses Maliro, who says research into reasons why wheat has been dormant over the years has pointed at areas that need improvement.

He says at the heart of these efforts is the realisation that the crop has the potential to transform Malawi’s economy.

“Research on wheat resumed in 2019 and, informed by research findings, is now focusing much on coming up with varieties that have high nutrient uptake levels so that they assist in efforts against malnutrition and hunger in Malawi.

“Wheat is a very important crop, not only to Malawi but also to the whole world. Think about bread and all related foods; they rely heavily on wheat. As such, coming up with improved varieties will help Malawi minimise costs related to wheat imports,” Maliro says.

He adds that the crop has the potential of helping stakeholders address problems of malnutrition and hunger in the country, and also bring in other economic benefits to Malawi.

Technology Transfer Officer in the Department of Agricultural Research Benjamin Chisama lauds researchers for their tireless efforts in rejuvenating the wheat crop so that, like maize, it can be at the centre of Malawians’ lives.

“Research remains important in efforts aimed at improving agricultural productivity in Malawi.

“We, as a country, are self-sufficient when it comes to maize and rice production but we need to do more and conduct more research on wheat, which is key to bread-making and plays an important role in the crop value chain. We, therefore, commend Luanar for this initiative,” Chisama said.

Luanar is working with the United Kingdom-based University of Nottingham in the development of improved wheat varieties through cross breeding and other forms of research.

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