The main sector of economic activity in West Africa consists of feeding its population

west african papersLaurent Bossard, Director, OECD Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat

In launching the new “West African Papers” series produced by the OECD Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat, T. Allen and P. Heinrigs have reflected on the region’s food economy opportunities, providing us with a useful and necessary occasion to look back and measure the extent of changes that have taken place.

I’m old enough to remember the West African agriculture – and especially that of the Sahel – that existed in the middle of the 1980s. One could (already) witness the power of demographic growth. Between 1960 and 1985, the population of the Sahel had doubled and the urban population had increased fivefold. But farming did not keep pace. Excluding weather variations (people were just emerging from the terrible drought of 1983), this 25-year period revealed an increase in imports to the tune of 8% per year. In his 1987 book, Le sahel face aux futurs (The Sahel: Facing the Future), Jacques Giri was already sounding the alarm: “Overall, the Sahelian food production system has remained very traditional, very vulnerable to drought and not all that productive. It has not adapted in terms of quality, quantity or needs […]. The region is increasingly dependent on outside sources and, in particular, on food aid. The return of more favourable weather conditions has not led to a decrease in this dependence.”

A significant portion of the region’s “imports” were, in reality, related to food aid, which had practically become institutionalised since the middle of the 1970s. While it’s true that Europe – whose grain production had doubled between 1970 and 1985 – was not averse to providing this type of aid, this state of affairs was not sustainable and the prospects were worrisome.

Farmers in the Sahel and in West Africa were clearly divided into two extremely unequal halves. On the one hand, the majority practised subsistence farming, and a large proportion of that majority did so with self-sufficiency in mind. Markets only played a marginal role in producers’ lives, especially as, in a number of countries, prices were set by ministries and commercialisation was – in theory, at least – a state monopoly.

On the other hand, export crops were enjoying a major boom, compelling a minority of small farmers to “modernise”. Stabilisation funds supported by the international community guaranteed purchase prices for producers, irrespective of global prices. This was the case for cotton, the production of which surged from the beginning of the 1970s onwards, or for cocoa and coffee in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. Groundnuts, meanwhile, offered great benefits for Senegal, Gambia and Niger, until the northern countries realised that they could produce oilseed crops at home at a lower cost.

But overall, the prospects were poor: demographics and towns would lead to a relentless increase in the food deficit. Revenue from export crops would not be sufficient to fund imports; structural food aid could not last.

More than three decades later, it appears that what we believed to be the cause of the problems (urbanisation) has in fact been the driving force behind spectacular agri-food development. By growing and multiplying, towns polarised a large part of the farming world, dragging it into the market. In doing so, they sparked the emergence and development of a large number of essential professions, all along the increasingly complex food chain,  both upstream and downstream of production: tool manufacturers and repairers, fertiliser and grain sellers, traders (collectors, wholesalers and retailers), labourers, packers, transporters, processors and restaurant owners. And this is not taking into account all the activities that enable the aforementioned to perform their jobs – take for example, those that wait by the side of the road to replace the punctured tyres of passing lorries.

In 2010, this food economy represented USD 178 billion, which equates to 36% of the combined GDP of all the countries in West Africa (likely around USD 240 billion in 2015). It is the top economic sector of the region and is experiencing strong growth. The move to extend the market has opened up new opportunities both upstream and downstream of agricultural production, which now represents just 60% of the food economy.

Today, the great challenge for farming lies less with crop exports and more with the economic opportunities offered by the regional market. Two-thirds of what West Africans consume is commercialised. A significant and fast-growing part of it is processed. The future of the agri-food sector is highly promising in terms of development and jobs. Taking more of an interest in the new activities developing along these value chains will also offer opportunities to women, who are especially prevalent in the processing and food distribution segments.

Public policies must be adapted to match these real-world changes.

Useful links

SWAC work on regional governance of food and nutrition security

West Africa: Security crisis and food crisis Laurent Bossard on OECD Insights

Moving beyond agriculture: It’s food that matters Thomas Allen on OECD Insights


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