They come from 16 different countries, but have one thing in common — Canadian wheat.
Participants in the 49th annual International Grain Industry Program at the Canadian International Grains Institute, better known as Cigi, are in Canada to learn more about where the grain they buy comes from, how it is grown and how it is shipped.
“Partly we’re saying thank you to them for being good customers, but the big piece is just reassuring them again about the quality system in Canada,” said Rick Morgan, special projects adviser at Cigi. “We want to make sure they see how government and industry work together to ensure that what the customer receives is what they are expecting to receive.”
For Haitham Al-Khshali, director general of the Grain Board of Iraq, the two-week-long program has only helped to solidify his appreciation of Canadian wheat. While he would like to see more grain harvested in his home country, the current political situation has generated many pitfalls for agricultural producers there.
“They have a lot of obstacles, as you know they have a fight against ISIS, this fight is really a great conflict between Iraqi people and terrorists and this takes a great effort,” Al-Khshali said.
“Sometimes you cannot go to a certain part of the country because of the fight, sometimes roads are closed for battles that happen suddenly.”
The so-called Islamic State or Daesh has also been aggressively targeting grain silos in the war-ravaged country, either razing them or capturing them.
“These people are crazy and they have destroyed everything in the country… this is not logical for any person,” said Al-Khshali, adding that ongoing military conflicts have also destroyed generational knowledge in Iraq. Youth may go off to fight, people are also killed at home, forced off their land or internally displaced, he said, leaving either no one to teach the next generation about farming or no one to learn. Education systems have also been disrupted.
As a result, Iraq depends heavily on foreign imports of wheat, particularly from Canada.
“We are really happy that we deal with Canadian wheat, we have dealt with it for a long time,” he said, noting Iraq had purchased 100,000 tonnes of wheat from Richardson only three months earlier and had made an order for that same amount three months prior to that.
He said that the kind of training provided by Cigi is exactly what his country’s millers and growers are looking for, and that he hopes the relationship between the institute and Iraq continues to be a strong one.
Nigeria has also been increasingly reliant on Canadian wheat in recent years, although for very different reasons.
“Canadian wheat is not new to Nigeria, but we have seen the import of Canadian wheat into Nigeria double in the last couple of years, to be precise, I think from 2008 the import value of Canadian wheat was about C$12.3 million, which rose to about C$160.5 million by 2013,” said Emmanuel Mshelia of Royal Mills and Foods Limited in Karu Abuja, Nigeria. “And if you look at the figure for exports of Canadian merchandise to Nigeria in 2015, it stood at about C$469 million, which is a lot of growth.”
Demand for high-protein wheat, which is usually blended with lower-quality wheats, has been driven by a growing and increasingly urban population. That same population is also seeking convenient foods that require little preparation, Mshelia added.
Instant Asian noodles are one of the most popular choices for consumers and the main product produced by Royal Mills.
“Asian noodles were introduced into the Nigerian market I think about 22, 25 years ago, and it has gained acceptance by almost all category of people,” he explained. “Because of the convenience of cooking, it’s very fast… lifestyles have changed.”
Royal Mills plans to double production in the next year, tripling it with the next five years, importing more Canadian wheat as it expands. However, due to low oil prices and a deepening recession, overall wheat imports to Nigeria are expected to shrink in 2017.
“We are aggressive as a company and we have been able to come out with a very good product, which is very, very fast taking over the market,” Mshelia said, adding the characteristics of Canadian Western Red Spring wheat is particularly well suited to instant noodle production.
Morgan said that presentations on noodle making, milling and baking were all a part of the program, which allowed customers to really get to know the Canadian system of production.
“There were many questions asked and many questions answered,” he said, adding that the program has been adapted many times since its inception nearly five decades ago. The end of the Canadian Wheat Board’s single desk has also changed the interactions participants have.
“We have a bit more opportunity to introduce them to some other Canadian crops as well, and some of their countries are also importing other Canadian crops, like canola and pulses and things like that,” Morgan said. “So we spend a little bit of time on those kinds of crops as well, and have presentations by groups like Pulse Canada and the Canola Council that didn’t happen in the past.”
There was also a presentation by Grain Farmers of Ontario, before the group headed to Vancouver to see wheat being loaded onto ships.
“When the wheat board was around, it was pretty focused on western wheat and now we have the opportunity to include something about eastern Canadian wheat as well,” he said.
Some of the participants had been in Canada before, but it has been decades since a representative from Iraq has participated. For others it was their first trip to Canada.
“This is my first and I hope it won’t be my last,” said Mshelia.