Open Sesame: African Countries Major Players in Global Sesame Seed Production
Ask any dietitian and you’ll be told that sesame seeds are great for health and wellness. They have the highest oil content among all oil seeds and are used in various forms – from toppings on burgers and bakery products to dishes, such as Japanese tempura. What’s also great is that this tiny seed promises a billion-dollar export revenue for Africa. You see, China used to be the world’s largest exporter of sesame seeds but given the country’s changing farming habits, almost 55 percent of the world sesame production is now in Africa, while 42 percent is in Asia. However, Asia and Africa remain the key producers of sesame seeds with Myanmar, India, China, Sudan and Tanzania accounting for 70 percent of global sesame seed production.
Sesame, though small, is tough, growing and thriving in areas where most other crops would find it hard to flourish – namely dry conditions. Surprisingly, the crop’s output does not increase significantly with the application of fertilisers – good news for farmers without the means to afford fertilisers – and large quantities of the crop can be lost by mechanised harvesting, demanding that the seeds be harvested manually by a farmer and/or a worker threshing the crop with a winnowing fork or machete. Given these – thriving in dry conditions, the need for manual labour and the lack of dependence on fertilisers, – labour costs and climate are obviously important considerations when deciding where to set up a sesame farm and production unit. Therefore, for a farmer with access to enough cheap labour, (for the planting and harvesting), and enough land, (to ensure significant harvested quantities given lower yield), sesame production can be a very viable option.
The requirements of a large farmland and high manpower give African farmers an edge because many of Africa’s farmers are often smallholders with limited technical assistance. The continent holds sixty percent of the world’s arable land and the continent’s population, already large, is still growing and is forecast to exceed those of other continents in no time. So, one place in the world where large quantities of arable land and manpower are available is in Africa. Therefore, Africa embodies the right mix of ingredients needed to grow sesame. Proof – while large agricultural producers like Argentina and Brazil have attempted industrial-scale sesame production, they haven’t had the success that African growers have had.
Experts say that Africa’s production of sesame has grown at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.5% over the last eight years while global consumption over that same period has increased by 2%. This production growth rate is thanks to traditional sesame growers like Ethiopia and Sudan, though major growth came from other countries – Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Tanzania and Mozambique – where production has also grown significantly over the past eight years. Sudan is the largest producer of sesame in Africa, with more than 2.1 million hectares of production area. Unfavorable climate conditions during the past 3-4 years in Asia decreased sesame production leading to high crop prices. However, production stepped up in Africa stabilizing prices while allowing African countries capture a larger share of the export market.
When deciding which crops to grow -cotton, sorghum, maize, groundnuts and sesame – African farmers choices are governed by the income potential of their crops. Given its label as a health food which helped fuel exports, the global sesame seed market was USD 15.44 billion in 2015 and analysts predict a continuous upward trend over the next 5 years. In light of this upward trajectory, sesame seed production is increasingly strengthening its foothold on the continent. Major sesame seed importing countries include China, Japan, France, Germany, Australia, Brazil and the United States of America. Demand for organically grown sesame seeds is also growing worldwide, specifically in Germany and Japan, providing a good opportunity for African producers and for the growth of organic sesame seeds.
Many say Africa’s future lies in agriculture and Africa is obviously taking this to heart given its increased focus on agriculture. For example, Liberia is working on making palm oil its largest export commodity, Cote d’Ivoire is working with China to modernize agriculture within its borders and Cameroon is promoting fish farming entrepreneurship – to mention a few. With global demand for sesame seeds only forecast to increase, the revenue-generating potential of this crop cannot be ignored.