Moving beyond agriculture: It’s food that matters!

marketThomas Allen, Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC)/OECD Secretariat

We have to face facts: agriculture’s role in the food economy of West Africa isn’t as important as it used to be. Today, 40% of the agro-food sector’s value added is no longer produced by agriculture. Agriculture remains a pillar of economies in the region, but the food chain’s downstream segments are evolving in line with changes in society. West African politicians need to take note of these evolutions and act accordingly if the region is to take full advantage of its domestic market growth potential. Food and nutrition issues are no longer solely agricultural in nature, and agricultural policy no longer addresses them all.

In West Africa today, as many people depend on non-agricultural activities for their livelihoods as are engaged in agriculture. This is the major transformation of the past 60 years. It is inextricably linked to the explosion in towns and cities that one can see just by looking at a map of the region. Never in the history of humanity have as many people moved and have as many cities emerged in such a short time. Today there are 2000 towns with over 10,000 inhabitants; in 1950, there were 150.

There are now 150 million urban dwellers, 30 times more than in 1950. Between 2000 and 2015 alone, the West African urban population grew by over 60 million people. That’s like adding a country the size of France to the region. And this growth is no longer only fueled by rural migration: most of these people were born in cities.

As a result of urbanization and income growth, the West African diet is changing. This is in turn impacting food security and nutrition. Diets are diversifying, especially in urban areas. More fruits and vegetables and more processed foods are being consumed, with the latter now representing at least 39% of urban households’ food budgets. Even more surprisingly, the poorest rural households devote 35% of their budget to processed foods, showing that these are not limited to the urban middle class.

These figures remind us of a simple truth: Almost all foods are processed in some way. We do not eat wheat or maize, but rather bread and a multitude of other products from their flour. Millet is crushed, cassava is soaked, shredded, crushed, dried, roasted, fermented, etc. Millions of women have participated in these sometimes laborious tasks, and today some devote all their energy to them. This is, for example, the case of Georgette* in Cotonou, who specializes in the preparation and sale of mawé or “dried aklui“, granules of maize flour that can easily and quickly be used to make a kind of porridge. The form that this market development takes can come as a surprise to those who automatically associate processed foods with supermarkets or frozen foods; do not expect the streets of Bamako or Niamey to be covered overnight by the franchises of a famous fast food chain!

More and more men and women work in the logistics and marketing of food products. Quantities exchanged on the agricultural and food markets have exploded: households now turn to markets as their main source of food supply, providing at least two-thirds of their food consumption. Total transactions amounted to $120 billion in 2010. It is by far the largest West African market. If you add the fact that urban populations consume 50% more than rural populations and that there is no sign of urbanisation slowing over the next two decades, it is easy to understand investor interest. Helping to co-ordinate these various actors is more important than ever before.

However, there is an additional difficulty: the largest share of this economy is informal. And it would be unrealistic to seek to formalise it today. We need to be more creative than simply suggesting investment frameworks. Experiences elsewhere can inspire ways forward, such as the Qali Warma programme in Peru that revised public procurement procedures so that local food producers could supply school meals for children between the ages of 3 and 6. This initiative is a good illustration of the challenges to public action today, namely how to simultaneously release people’s energies and devise institutional mechanisms that ensure the coherence of an increasingly complex agro-food system.

*Names have been changed

Useful links

ECOWAP+10: ten years of the ECOWAS Common Agricultural Policy

Changes in the agro-food economy and their implications OECD/SWAC and ECOWAP+10

Settlement, Market and Food Security, West African Studies, OECD/SWAC

2015 Sahel and West Africa Club Forum

Please visit the SWAC blog for more views on regional issues in West Africa.

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