Durum wheat is an important food crop in the world and an endemic species of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). 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. Here, the achievements of the durum breeding program of Ethiopia are revised to reveal a steep acceleration in variety release and adoption over the last decade. Furthermore, the variety release for Mauritania and Senegal is described to show 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. This review describes 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. This indicates that the new breeding technologies offer great promise for expanding the area of durum wheat production in SSA but that this achievement remains primarily dependent on the market ability to purchase these grains at a higher price to stimulate farmer adoption. The critical importance of connecting all actors along the semolina value chain is presented in the example of Oromia, Ethiopia and that success story is then used to prompt a wider discussion on the potential of durum wheat as a crop for poverty reduction in Africa.
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