Women’s equality crucial for Ethiopia’s agricultural productivity and wheat self-sufficiency goals

This op-ed by CIMMYT researchers Kristie Drucza and Mulunesh Tsegaye  was originally published in the Ethiopian newspaper The Reporter .

A farmer stacking harvested wheat Dodola district, Ethiopia. Photo: CIMMYT/P. Lowe

The Government of Ethiopia recently announced an ambitious goal to reach wheat self-sufficiency by 2022, eliminating expensive wheat imports and increasing food security.

However, a new report based on a four-year research project on gender and productivity in Ethiopia’s wheat sector indicates that a lack of technical gender research capacity, a shortage of gender researchers and low implementation of gender-focused policies is hampering these efforts.

Gender equality is crucial for agricultural productivity. Women head a quarter of rural households in Ethiopia. However, faced with low or no wages, limited access to credit and constrained access to land and other resources, they produce 23 percent less per hectare than men. Women in male-headed households have even more limitations, as gender norms often exclude them from community power structures, extension services and technical programs. According to the World Bank, a failure to recognize the roles, differences and inequities between men and women poses a serious threat to the effectiveness of Ethiopia’s agricultural development agenda.

The good news is the Government of Ethiopia has taken positive steps towards encouraging gender equality, with agriculture leading the way. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signaled his commitment to strengthening Ethiopia’s gender equality by appointing women to 50 percent of his cabinet and appointing the country’s first female president, defense minister and chief justice. The government’s Gender Equality Strategy for Ethiopia’s Agriculture Sector is a welcome improvement on past agriculture policies, and its latest Wheat Sector Development Strategy focuses on promoting women´s participation in extension and training programs. Under the leadership of Director General Mandefro Nigussie, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) has drafted a strategy for gender mainstreaming, developed gender guidelines and recruited 100 new female scientists, constituting the highest percentage of women researchers in its history.

However, according to our research, there is a clear gap between policies and actions. Women living in male-headed households face different constraints from those in female-headed households, yet very little data exists on them. Ethiopia’s wheat strategy and other policies do not have sex-disaggregated indicators and targets. Women are seen as a homogeneous category in policy, meaning that certain groups of women miss out on assistance.

To strengthen women’s role in the agriculture sector, more internal reflection on gender and learning is required across institutions and organizations. Our new report offers a full list of recommendations for the research, policy and donor communities. Among other suggestions, we recommend that:
• the research sector move beyond surveying household heads and use diverse research methods to understand systems within farming households;
• the education ministry develop a Gender in Agriculture specialization at a national university to make progress filling the existing gaps in expertise and that
• donors invest more in gender-related agriculture research.

Ethiopia has taken great strides towards recognizing the important role of women in agricultural productivity. If it wants to become self-sufficient in wheat—and meet the sustainable development goals (SDGs)—it must make the extra effort to follow through with these efforts. At this critical time, the country cannot afford to ignore women’s needs.

The “Understanding Gender in Wheat-based Livelihoods for Enhanced WHEAT R4D Impact” project ran from 2014 to 2018 and sought to improve the focus on gender and social equity in wheat-related research and development in Ethiopia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Ethiopia, the project included analysis of literature and gender policies, a stakeholder analysis of government and non-government actors, qualitative research with 275 male and female farmers and a gender audit and capacity assessment of EIAR. 

This research was made possible by the generous financial support of BMZ — the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany. 

Smallholder wheat production can cut Africa’s costly grain imports

This blog by Mike Listman was originally posted on CIMMYT.org.

International scientists are working with regional and national partners in sub-Saharan Africa to catalyze local wheat farming and help meet the rapidly rising regional demand for this crop.

The specialists are focusing on smallholder farmers in Rwanda and Zambia, offering them technical and institutional support, better links to markets, and the sharing of successful practices across regions and borders, as part of the project “Enhancing smallholder wheat productivity through sustainable intensification of wheat-based farming systems in Rwanda and Zambia.”

“Work started in 2016 and has included varietal selection, seed multiplication, and sharing of high-yielding, locally adapted, disease-resistant wheat varieties,” said Moti Jaleta, a socioeconomist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) who leads the project. “Our knowledge and successes in smallholder wheat production and marketing will also be applicable in Madagascar, Mozambique, and Tanzania.”

Harvesting wheat at Gataraga, Northern Province, Rwanda.

Maize is by far the number-one food crop in sub-Saharan Africa but wheat consumption is increasing fast, driven in part by rapid urbanization and life-style changes. The region annually imports more than 15 million tons of wheat grain, worth some US$ 3.6 billion at current prices. Only Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa grow significant amounts of wheat and they are still net importers of the grain.

“Growing more wheat where it makes sense to do so can help safeguard food security for people who prefer wheat and reduce dependence on risky wheat grain markets,” Jaleta explained. “We’re working in areas where there’s biophysical potential for the crop in rain-fed farming, to increase domestic wheat production and productivity through use of improved varieties and cropping practices.”

In addition to the above, participants are supporting the region’s wheat production in diverse ways:

  • Recommendations to fine-tune smallholder wheat value chains and better serve diverse farmers.
  • Testing of yield-enhancing farming practices, such as bed-and-furrow systems that facilitate efficient sowing and better weed control.
  • Testing and promotion of small-scale mechanization, such as power tillers, to save labor and improve sowing and crop establishment.
  • Exploring use of hand-held light sensors to precisely calibrate nitrogen fertilizer dosages throughout the cropping season.

Innocent Habarurema, wheat breeder in the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB), cited recent successes in the release of improved, disease resistant wheat varieties, as well as engaging smallholder farmers in seed multiplication and marketing to improve their access to quality seed of those varieties.

“The main challenge in wheat production is the short window of time between wheat seasons, which doesn’t allow complete drying of harvested plants for proper threshing, Habarurema explained. “Suitable machinery to dry and thresh the wheat would remove the drudgery of hand threshing and improve the quality of the grain, so that it fetches better prices in markets.”

Millers, like this one in Rwanda, play a key role in wheat value chains.

Critical wheat diseases in Zambia include spot blotch, a leaf disease caused by the fungus Cochliobolus sativus, and head blight caused by Fusarium spp., which can leave carcinogenic toxins in the grain, according to Batiseba Tembo, wheat breeder at the Zambian Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI).

“Developing and disseminating varieties resistant to these diseases is a priority in the wheat breeding program at Mt. Makulu Agricultural Research Center,” said Tembo. “We’re also promoting appropriate mechanization for smallholder farmers, to improve wheat production and reduce the enormous drudgery of preparing the soil with hand hoes.”

Participants in the project, which runs to 2020, met at Musanze, in Rwanda’s Northern Province, during February 5-7 to review progress and plan remaining activities, which include more widespread sharing of seed, improved practices, and other useful outcomes.

“There was interest in trying smallholder winter wheat production under irrigation in Zambia to reduce the disease effects normally experienced in rainfed cropping,” said Jaleta, adding that the costs and benefits of irrigation, which is rarely used in the region, need to be assessed.

Project participants may also include in selection trials wheat varieties that have been bred to contain enhanced grain levels of zinc, a key micronutrient missing in the diets of many rural Africa households.

“The project will also push for the fast-track release and seed multiplication of the best varieties, to get them into farmers’ hands as quickly as possible,” Jaleta said.

In addition to CIMMYT, RAB, and ZARI, implementing partners include the Center for Coordination of Agricultural Research and Development for Southern Africa (CCARDESA). Generous funding for the work comes from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.

New infographics illustrate impact of wheat blast

Wheat blast is a fast-acting and devastating fungal disease that threatens food safety and security in the Americas and South Asia.

First officially identified in Brazil in 1984, the disease is widespread in South American wheat fields, affecting as much as 3 million hectares in the early 1990s.

 In 2016, it crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and Bangladesh suffered a severe outbreak. Bangladesh released a blast-resistant wheat variety—developed with breeding lines from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)—in 2017, but the country and region remain extremely vulnerable.

The continued spread of blast in South Asia—where more than 100 million tons of wheat are consumed each year—could be devastating.

Researchers with the CIMMYT-led and USAID-supported Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) and Climate Services for Resilient Development (CSRD) projects partner with national researchers and meteorological agencies on ways to work towards solutions to mitigate the threat of wheat blast and increase the resilience of smallholder farmers in the region. These include agronomic methods and early warning systems so farmers can prepare for and reduce the impact of wheat blast.

This series of infographics shows how wheat blast spreads, its potential effect on wheat production in South Asia and ways farmers can manage it.   

This work is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). CSISA partners include CIMMYT, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

CIMMYT and its partners work to mitigate wheat blast through projects supported by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), CGIAR Research Program on WHEAT, and the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture.

See more on wheat blast here: https://www.cimmyt.org/wheat-blast/

IWYP annual report highlights new wheat lines, product development

The International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP), a partnership of public sector agencies and private industry focusing on innovations in wheat breeding for significant yield increases, recently released its 2017-2018 Annual Report.  Many new research discoveries have been recorded over the last year, from germplasm with traits to improve genetic yield potential to molecular genetic markers associated with a target trait and new methods and technology to improve screening of individual wheat lines.

Accomplishments include making wheat lines with higher biomass and grain yields available for release in national programs, validating the hypothesis that combining parents with high biomass and good harvest index can boost genetic gains.  IWYP researchers have also made publicly available new wheat lines with increased grain size and spike morphology, which several breeding companies in the UK, Europe and Brazil have requested. Yield trials have also led to the discovery of several physiological trait lines that outperform the best local and International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) check varieties in over 27 environments.

The Partnership, which includes 30 projects in more than 50 laboratories in 12 countries, is now in its third year. Outputs from its earliest projects are currently being validated and integrated in a prebreeding pipeline at the IWYP Hub at CIMMYT for development into pre-products. This ensures the best “toolbox” of new traits, genetics, and technology to reach its critical challenge of raising genetic wheat yield potential 50 percent by 2035.

Read the full report here.

New study confirms the nutritional and health benefits of zinc-biofortified wheat in India

A recent study by India and US scientists shows that when vulnerable young children in India consume foods with wheat-enriched zinc, the number of days they spend sick with pneumonia and vomiting significantly diminishes.

Velu Govindan (CIMMYT) inspects zinc-fortified wheat. Photo: CIMMYT files.

An estimated 26 percent of India’s population lacks adequate micronutrients in their diets. Developed through biofortification — the breeding of crop varieties whose grain features higher levels of micronutrients — high-zinc wheat can help address micronutrient deficiencies.

The results of the study, which took place over six months, confirm zinc-enhanced wheat’s potential to improve the diets and health of disadvantaged groups who consume wheat-based foods, but the authors conclude that longer-term studies are needed.

In partnership with HarvestPlus and partners in South Asia, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has bred and fostered the release in the region of six zinc-enhanced varieties that are spreading among farmers and seed producers.

Click here to read the full study.