An old/new business opportunity for Africa: durum wheat

  • 27th May 2019
  • by secretary
24 May 2019. Durum wheat is an important food crop in the world and an endemic species of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

A new publication (May 2019, 20 pages) convincingly demonstrates the potential of releasing durum wheat varieties adapted to all growing conditions of SSA, from the oases of the Sahara to the highlands of Ethiopia – is substantial.

In the highlands of Ethiopia and the oases of the Sahara this crop

has been cultivated for thousands of years. Today, smallholder farmers still grow it on marginal lands to assure production for their own consumption. However, durum wheat is no longer just a staple crop for food security but has become a major cash crop.

In fact, the pasta, burghul and couscous industry currently purchase durum grain at prices 10 to 20% higher than that of bread wheat. Africa as a whole imports over €4 billion per year of durum grain to provide the raw material for its food industry. Hence, African farmers could obtain a substantial share of this large market by turning their production to this crop.

  • The durum breeding program of Ethiopia reveals a steep acceleration in variety release and adoption over the last decade. 
  • The variety release for Mauritania and Senegal shows how modern breeding methods could be used to deliver grain yields above 3 t ha−1 in seasons of just 92 days of length and in daytime temperatures always above 32 ◦C.
Filippo Bassi,
at Terbol Station, Lebanon

“We have actually two projects on pre-breeding with the Crop Trust. The first one started 4 years ago under the leadership of the University of Nottingham, Prof Ian King. The team has been able to generate several hundreds of new crosses between Crop wild relatives (CWR) and new ICARDA and CIMMYT durum elite material. This year we are conducting a multi-locations test and we worked with our partners from North Africa and India to select the best one to start yield testing next year.” 

“The durum program of ICARDA is already strongly based on Crop wild relatives (CWR)-derived germplasm, with more than 60% of all our elites obtained that way. We are beating the commercial cultivars by 10-20% yield in developing countries, and even went as far as surpassing the best commercial varieties in Europe and Australia.”  

“A participatory approach, that uses the farmers themselves to guide the breeding decisions helps hugely in achieving success. A simple example was for an advanced line that I really liked: the yield was very high, the grains very big, and it had very good disease resistance. Still, when I showed it to farmers they did not like it. The main reason was that it was too short, and they could not get enough straw to feed their livestock. This is but an example on how incorporating farmers’ opinions save me from investing a lot of efforts in releasing and promoting a variety that would have never made it to cultivation”. Filippo Bassi (see picture), Senior Scientist – Durum Breeder, Breeding programs (Wheat Barley Legumes) ICARDA

Challenges and promises
New breeding technologies offer great promise for expanding the area of durum wheat production in SSA. However this remains primarily dependent on the market ability to purchase these grains at a higher price to stimulate farmer adoption.
Because of its industrial nature, durum wheat has often been disregarded by SSA policy makers in favour of bread wheat as a more direct “food security” approach. Considering that the most cultivated durum varieties are more than 30 years old, there is a significant genetic yield gap that could be filled through the release and commercialization of more modern varieties.

Durum Wheat Processing Machine

A significant effort has been made to expand the production of improved durum wheat cultivars to supply raw materials to the food industries.  The pasta producers used to rely on massive importation of durum wheat grains, which was not a sustainable long-term business strategy due to high and volatile costs. Further, the purchase of foreign grains competed with other national priorities for the use of governmental hard currency stocks.

Recent investments in the pasta industry are proving extremely promising in Ethiopia thanks to new food habits of the growing urban populations, which are looking for fast and tasty foods, while still cheap and nutritious. The Ethiopian Millers Association has eagerly explored the possibility to procure the needed raw material directly from local farmers to reduce production costs and increase competitiveness against foreign pasta imports. Unfortunately, the local production did not guarantee sufficient rheological grain quality to satisfy the industrial needs. In fact, grain of tetraploid landraces does not meet industrial standards in terms of colour or protein quality.

Hence, specific incentives needed to be provided to farmers to obtain industrial-grade harvests. The scope of the Ethiopian-Italian cooperation project for the Agricultural Value Chain in Oromia (AVCPO) was to re-direct some of the already existing bread wheat production system of the Bale zone toward the more lucrative farming of durum wheat for the industry.

The process acted on the key elements required by the pasta industry to stabilize and self-sustain the value chain:

  • competitive price, 
  • high rheological quality for conversion into pasta, 
  • easy and timely delivery, 
  • consistent stock of grains and predictable increases over years
West African countries have the potential to convert their off-season of their 7.2 million ha of rice fields into durum wheat cultivation, instead of having an unproductive winter fallow. New, super-early and heat tolerant varieties have been developed, tested and confirmed along the Senegal River and their seed is readily available through the CGIAR WHEAT program. Their cultivation could turn an annual import market of 185 million worth of grain and almost 200 million worth of pasta into a national income to improve industrialization, create jobs and reduce poverty in rural areas.
Southern and Central African countries cultivate 1.6 million ha of rice and 0.65 million ha of wheat. Unfortunately, data on wheat cultivation in Central Africa are few and unsubstantial. Among Southern African countries, durum wheat is cultivated on just 26,500 ha, mostly in South Africa and Zimbabwe. A recent study on wheat suitability in SSA using geospatial analysis revealed that Angola, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe are the countries with the largest potential extension of suitable land for establishing wheat production. The suitable mega environments identified were highlands with high rainfall and frequent diseases and drought prone rainfall with cold winter months.

Wheat cultivation in oasis in Mauritania.
(a) Holes in the mud for the planting of durum wheat
as the water retreats;
(b) Gradient on plant maturity caused by
 the difference in planting time
following the retreat of the water
The Sahara oases are unique environments that remained impervious to modernization. Durum wheat cultivation in the oases dates to the initial trade routes between the Nile Valley and West Africa. Several traditional dishes are made from this crop and its straw is very important as feed for the small ruminants and camels. The introduction of modern agronomy and irrigation practices, in integration with targeted breeding efforts could deliver true game changers. 
Alternatively, the reduced available land surface could be used as an advantage to generate very exclusive durum products. In fact, the ‘rarity’ could be exploited through well integrated value chains to deliver products at elevated prices on the occidental markets, as is already the case for the oases dates. Considering that oases produce less than 5% of their needs in cereals and the rest is purchased from neighboring towns, the possibility of generating larger incomes would be a suitable strategy to tackle famine.
South-South Collaboration to Expand Durum Wheat Cultivation in Africa
Urbanization has shifted the food habits of many countries and pasta has gained steadily in appreciation by African consumers. Great traditional and modern knowledge for cultivation and production of this crop exist already in North Africa and Ethiopia. Breeding programs for this crop have been successful in targeting the harsh drought conditions of North Africa and the disease pressure in Ethiopia. 
In order to expand the production of this crop to non-traditional territories, the expertise gathered there could be transferred to SSA in the form of novel and adapted varieties. 
  • Egyptian breeders could help in delivering varieties targeted to the hot and irrigated areas of mega-environment type ME1, such as West Africa and Sudan. 
  • The other North African countries could target ME4A, with low rainfall and cold winters, as well as help in the further development of the Saharan oases. 
Altogether, this envisioned South-South collaboration could ensure that varieties developed in traditional durum growing areas such as North Africa and Ethiopia, would adapt to the conditions of the southern partners. Harvests could then be sold to those African countries with strong pasta industries and the finished semolina products would be sold all over Africa. This integrated value chain would ensure a steep increase in monetary circulation and an overall reduction in the poverty of Africa.


Using non-GM molecular breeding techniques, ICARDA’s scientists developed a set of durum wheat varieties that can withstand up to 40°C heat along the Senegal River basin. The project was supported by the Swedish Research Council. If scaled up, the technology offers potential to fight hunger and help farmers adapt to rising temperatures.

Learn about how the 2017 Olam Food Prize winner is re-imagining agriculture through the development of a super heat tolerant wheat in the Senegal Basin. As part of its 25th Anniversary celebrations in 2014, Olam launched the Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security in partnership with the international scientific organisation, Agropolis Fondation.

Agricultural Value Chains Project in Oromia (AVCPO)