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W4A Day Five: Ending on a high and a declaration of commitment

As so often happens at the end of conferences, I have to dash for a plane, so I’ll make it brief. You may have seen on our live twitter feed (#W4A) that today was a day for proposals and promises at the Wheat for Food Security in Africa conference. Participants from each country gathered together to discuss and present how they intended to move forward from these meetings.

Almost all the countries agreed that there is a need to initiate some form of ‘wheat task force’. This would act to liaise with governments, conduct research, and establish capacity building in the key areas of extension and technology adoption. Organizations such as these could also address the issues which have been raised so many times this week: smallholder farmers’ access to credit, inputs such as fertilizer, the correct agronomic practices for their region and efficiency within the value chain between researchers, extension workers, farmers, markets, millers, and consumers.

Participants also raised the issue of germplasm exchange. This needs to be made easier between countries, while making sure that IP rights are protected and the spread of diseases such as Ug99 prevented, which cannot be done without international collaboration. All participants indicated that they would be very willing to work together in the future and to convince others in their countries to work with their international partners. Linked to this, some argued that the involvement of the private sector is key if we are to promote the development of a profitable African wheat industry. For this too we need to develop sound and consistent IP practices.

Another major issue discussed was the current situation with wheat imports. Many African countries subsidize wheat imports so much that it is cheaper to buy wheat abroad than to grow it nationally. This, argued participants, is not a healthy or sustainable practice. Governments need to reduce subsidies to make wheat farming more attractive for producers and/or introduce a levy of e.g. $2/ton on wheat imports, and invest this money in wheat research to develop varieties and agronomic practices suitable for the region.

The conference concluded with the signing of a declaration which will be presented by the Minister of Ethiopia at the African Union Joint Conference of African Ministers of Agriculture and Ministers of Trade, 29 October – 2 November 2012, with the full support of conference participants and the Ministers of Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Burundi. The declaration “urgently recommends to include wheat as one of Africa’s strategic products” and stresses that policy options are proposed to “promote and develop domestic wheat production… and to scale-up investment to the national and international wheat value chain.”

In closing the conference, Thomas Lumpkin, CIMMYT Director General, concluded: “I am committed, CIMMYT is committed, ICARDA is committed, to improving wheat in Africa… African farmers want to change. They don’t want to be museums of ancient practices. They want to evolve, become more productive.” And this is the message that will be taken forward and presented to Africa as a continent.