Sudan’s agriculture, always susceptible to adverse weather, has been plagued by persistent drought the past several years. That problem, along with outbreaks of civil strife in the south, west and east, has led to massive population displacement — up to 4 million persons, according to some humanitarian sources — as citizens seek food and a calmer environment.

Unfortunately, many of those refugees have headed for the worst drought-stricken areas, which in turn has tightened supplies of key food grains in some regions.

In January, the price of sorghum — Sudan’s food staple — rose steeply, prompting the government to remove grain imports taxes until Sept. 30. At the same time, the Board of Strategic Commodity Reserves also announced an allocation of 500,000 dinars to purchase grains for redistribution to deficit areas. Contracts also were concluded to purchase 100,000 tonnes of wheat.

The World Food Programme recently reported that while food distributions in May temporarily stabilized population movements in some parts of the country, drinking water scarcity remained a major problem. Supplies were reported to be down to one a day in the worst-affected areas, while the increased consumption of wild foods indicated a rise in the use of extreme coping mechanisms.

Despite food distributions and the injection of cereals into the market from Sudan’s strategic reserve, food prices have remained high in many areas. In June, grain prices were twice as high as the same period last year and still were rising, according to sources.

WHEAT AND FLOUR MILLING. Sudan has been cultivating wheat in the north for thousands of years. Although wheat area never exceeded 15,000 ha until the 1950s, yields were high enough to cover consumption needs in northern Sudan and the main towns. The rest of the population was dependent either on sorghum in central and eastern Sudan or cassava in the south. All of Sudan’s grains, with the exception of wheat, were produced without irrigation.

However, with urbanization in the past 50 years, food traditions have changed, and wheat consumption has soared to about 1 million tonnes annually. To meet this demand, wheat cultivation was introduced into central Sudan, where temperatures generally exceed the optimum for the crop and the winter season is relatively short.

Despite these limitations, Sudan’s wheat area was expanded by 600% between 1984 and 1994 to as much as 357,000 ha in 1994. Production subsequently increased from fewer than 100,000 tonnes in 1984 to 875,000 tonnes in 1992, the peak harvest year.

However, following economic reforms and policy liberalization in the mid-1990s — and ensuing inflation — the cost of production became prohibitive, and wheat area has slipped by a third. Consequently, imports, which had dropped to a low of 200,000 tonnes in 1992, have climbed to about 700,000 a year time in the past three years.

Currently, the Gezira area produces more than 50% of Sudan’s total wheat production, with the remainder grown in the northern and Nile States and specified areas in the Rahad and New Halfa projects. However, plans are under way to construct Hamdab and Kajbar dams to facilitate expansion of the northern state’s wheat production area, not only for attaining self-sufficiency, but also for export. Moreover, heightening of the Roseires dam is expected to provide enough water to expand wheat production in the irrigated areas of central Sudan.

The emphasis on expanded wheat output is spurred by the fact that Sudan is one of the fastest growing wheat markets in the world. Some sources indicate that imports in 2001-02 could rise to 1 million tonnes because of the drought and continued consumption increases.

Unlike Egypt, Sudan’s neighbor to the north, the Sudanese government is not involved in wheat, flour or breadstuffs in a direct way. There is no subsidized bread, flour or wheat, and price is strictly dependent on competition.

Wheat consumption in Sudan is low compared with other Middle Eastern countries, but high compared with other African countries. Sudan’s main bread is a unique baguette-type that is long and somewhat oval shaped with points on the end. Very little flat bread or toast bread is consumed in Sudan.

The total annual wheat milling capacity of Sudan’s industrial mills is estimated by the government at 1.3 million tonnes, which is sufficient to produce about 900,000 tonnes of flour to meet domestic demand. Sudan’s large wheat flour mills also produce about 360,000 tonnes of millfeed, which is used in the animal feed industry. Thousands of other small mills grind wheat and other grains locally.

In recent years, competition among wheat exporters to Sudan has become intense. Some millers are dealing exclusively with the Australian Wheat Board while some deal exclusively with the Canadian Wheat Board.

Nonetheless, Australia has become the top supplier of wheat to Sudan. The AWB has signed an annual supply agreement with one of the largest flour mills in Sudan (SAYGA) and is supplying 100% of the mill’s needs.

With the end of U.S. trade sanctions in Sudan after nearly 10 years, there is very little familiarity with the U.S. marketing system or available U.S. wheat classes among millers and buyers. U.S. wheat interests took advantage of an opportunity last year to regain market share in Sudan through the El Shiekh Mustafa El Amin Group, which operates the SMA Flour Mill.

U.S. Wheat Associates and SMA signed an agreement for using the "American Quality Wheat" seal, and SMA is the first U.S. Wheat business partner in Sudan. The SMA mill in Port Sudan grinds 1,300 tonnes of flour per day and is adding a 2,000-tonne capacity mill that will open in 2003.

COARSE GRAINS AND OILSEEDS. Maize in Sudan currently is a secondary crop, although it is used as a food staple in some parts of the southern states. But the government is trying to encourage expanded, larger-scale production to try to capture export markets.

According to the agriculture ministry, the existence of the Greater Arab Duty-Free Zone should enhance the competitiveness of Sudan in Arab maize markets. To support these efforts, a number of research programs are focusing on development of high quality hybrids and improved seeds that suit the main production regions. A number of investors from Qatar, Algeria, Morocco and Libya also have expressed interest in investing in maize production in Sudan.

Sudan has a well developed oilseed products industry and is one of the biggest exporters of sesame oil and groundnut oil to the European Union. The country has 76 industrial vegetable oil factories with a total capacity of 3 million tonnes annually. In addition, hundreds of small oil mills operate throughout the country with an estimated total annual capacity of about 1.5 million tonnes.