WASHINGTON, JULY 28, 2015 ‒ A new World Bank report says that although 60% of West Africans work in agriculture, these countries still depend heavily on food imports which have tripled over the past 10 years. According to the Bank, West African farmers could expand agriculture production to feed the largest and fastest growing population if governments can work more closely with institutions such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to develop regional trade policies and remove cross border restrictions on food trade.
According to the report—Connecting Food Staples and Input Markets in West Africa: A Regional Trade Agenda for ECOWAS Countries—production of food staples in West Africa such as rice could double and maize could nearly triple if governments rethink their policies and support to agriculture and agribusiness by opening up trade within the region.
The report builds on the 2012 World Bank report, “Africa Can Help Feed Africa,” and explores the specific circumstances in West Africa, home to one-third of the continent’s population and many of the most vulnerable countries, and brings new analysis to the food staples trade, the multiple regional policies in place, and the implementation of those policies from the perspective of regional institutions.
“The food crisis in West Africa stimulated a new impetus for agricultural development and has undeniably reinforced the regional dimension of food staples policy. Yet the focus on regional trade integration has been somewhat pushed aside in this agenda,” says World Bank Senior Economist and report author Jean-Christophe Maur. “Today’s report shows how facilitating trade and creating the regional infrastructure to encourage cross-border flows will enable the region to benefit from economies of scale; improve access to better production technologies; develop access to inputs and research; and improve crop yields to protect West Africans from future shocks that can lead to food crises.”
Strong growth opportunities
A combination of Africa’s food crisis of 2007-2008, rising international food prices, low crop yields and a heavy reliance on food imports has left West African governments unable to affordably feed all of their citizens. While the food crisis reinvigorated each government’s focus on agricultural programs, at the same time policies to promote regional trade integration have been overlooked. To meet the near-term food consumption needs most governments in the region have adopted national agricultural policies that include import bans on rice, maize, cassava and other staples, which account for most of the calories consumed in West Africa.
Countries throughout Africa have tremendous agriculture potential with more than half of the world’s fertile yet unused land. In West Africa an increase in the potential output of the currently very low production yields of cereals could radically alter the balance of cereal trade in the region. The report details areas of abundant and potential growth for food staples and those with low productivity, and shows that a more open market that connects food demand in growing urban centers and food scarce rural areas with regions with excess crops will enable farmers to expand their markets while bringing food to people in communities with inadequate food supplies.
In West Africa farmers struggle to grow additional crops without necessary inputs such as high quality fertilizer, seeds, machinery and access to capital. Regional trade integration rules focused on food staples can help to at all levels of the supply chains an awareness of regional goals and will support steps needed to develop a system of affordable, quality inputs for farmers and enable growers to expand their yields, according to the report.
“The challenge of food supply is particularly acute in West Africa with some of the world’s fastest growing populations, including urban populations. At the same time Africa is increasingly dependent on food imports from the rest of the world to satisfy its consumption needs,” says report co-author Ben Shepherd. “This report shows how in West Africa, ECOWAS member states can embrace regional trade as an opportunity to establish a stable food supply and achieve their food staples development.”
ECOWAS can lead regional trade integration
The report describes a very active regional agenda that is already in place in West Africa and notes that ECOWAS institutions have shown leadership with the adoption of fertilizer and seed quality rules in 2008 and 2012. Challenges persist, however, particularly in the huge variety among ECOWAS member states’ capacity and willingness to adhere to these commitments. The report argues that ECOWAS is uniquely placed to facilitate, coordinate and enforce the wide transition needed to create a regionally integrated agriculture trade market in West Africa. The report offers the following steps for ECOWAS to support integrated regional trade:
- Member countries should see regional trade as an opportunity to achieve their food staples development objectives and embrace a comprehensive and coherent policy toward the promotion of openness to regional trade flows instead of keeping the current fragmented and often self-serving national attitudes.
- New regional policies should complement national ones. However regional actions should not be substituted for national ones and should avoid dispersion into too many initiatives and should be tailed to specific needs.
- Governments should emphasize the role of regional access to inputs as central to creating productivity gains throughout the region and as a driver of regional integration. The current significant policy efforts to create regional markets for inputs should bear important lessons for the development of future regional agricultural and trade policies.
- Finally, ECOWAS members need to pay greater attention to the private sector and value chains. Private entrepreneurs are better equipped to identify trade opportunities and can help provide market-based solutions to create new opportunities for suppliers of food staples and afford consumers with access to cheaper and better quality products. Public authorities and regional arrangements have a role in creating the environment for these sectoral developments.