The Sahel and West Africa had a good agricultural season, so why does food insecurity persist?

Ousman Tall, Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat (SWAC/OECD)

Every year the identification, analysis and mapping of areas at risk and populations affected by food and nutrition insecurity in the Sahel and West Africa are carried out. Conducted within the Food Crisis Prevention Network (RPCA), this process is co-ordinated by the Permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS). It analyses country-level information of the 17 countries in the region using a harmonised, common framework called the Cadre harmonisé (CH). The CH analysis is based mainly on annual agricultural production and information from household and market surveys. Developed by West African actors, using international standards, the strength of the CH lies in its broad objectivity, consensual analysis and the incorporation of a wide range of stakeholder analyses.

The 2016-17 agro-pastoral season just ended in the Sahel and West Africa region and the agricultural and food situations are generally satisfactory. The CH analysis shows good rainfall and hydrological situations as well as crops and livestock production. Cereal and tuber production is estimated at 67.2 million metric tonnes and 166.7 metric tonnes constituting 17% and 15% increases compared to the past five year averages, respectively. Despite these gains, approximately 9.6 million people are in a food security crisis situation.  The report published following the March 2017 RPCA Experts’ meeting in Dakar and based on the CH analysis, highlights some of the causes of food and nutrition insecurity to include prices, markets and the conflict along the Lake Chad basin.  Building upon the report, there is a need to further expand on some of the other conjectural factors that affected food and nutrition security during the 2016-17 season.

The global economy has been faced with weak aggregate demand, decreasing commodity prices and high financial market volatility. There is a sharp decline in the prices of commodities such as rubber, crude oil, iron ore and gold that has led to substantial cuts in export values and fiscal revenues in the region. This has led to the depreciation of local currencies in Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone; amid increasing rates of inflation. The Nigerian economy which represents over 65 % of West Africa’s GDP has been particularly affected by the continuous depreciation of the Naira, which has negatively impacted the economy of the region. Nigeria’s population is more than 167 million, representing over half of the total population in the region. With 60% of this population living below the poverty line, a general depreciation of the Naira leads to increased food prices and affects households’ access to food. This was the situation during the 2016-17 agricultural campaign.

The promotion of regional trade and markets in West Africa and the Sahel has helped to stimulate agricultural development and food security. National policies promoting regional integration have also helped to strengthen trade across the region through advocacy for the free movement of goods and services. Integrated markets and trade across the region have led to increased economies of scale in production, especially in the agricultural sector where surpluses produced by smallholder farmers are linked to local and regional markets.  However, regional integration has been hindered by a number of constraints including inefficient transportation and trade barriers along corridors and at borders, resulting in high transaction costs and, inevitably, high food prices.

Rapid urbanisation is also impeding the attainment of food security in the region. In West Africa, it is projected that the urban population will reach 400 million in 2050. The youthful population is migrating to urban areas, leaving behind an ageing farming population in an agrarian economy that is highly labour intensive. The agriculture and food systems have not transformed adequately enough to take advantage of the youthful population migrating into urban areas.  This is becoming a serious social and economic issue for most countries in the region. Unfortunately, information on the nature of the food insecurity situation in urban areas is limited due to the focus of the food security analysis on food availability and other rural indicators.

The RPCA has developed the efficient tools and platform needed for the analysis and discussion of food security in the Sahel and West Africa. The CH has been expanded from its use in the Sahel to gradually incorporate the rest of West Africa. Nigeria is the last country to be incorporated in the CH analysis, with 16 of its 36 States covered. The next challenge is to analyse other structural and conjectural drivers of food and nutrition security from a national and regional perspective in order to better explain why a large number of the population is always food insecure despite good agricultural campaigns. Policy makers need to broaden the food security interventions beyond food availability to include other dimensions of food security: access, utilisation and stability.

Useful links

RPCA Food and Nutrition Situation in the Sahel and West Africa – final communiqué, March 2017

Maps & Facts: Food & Nutrition Situation, March 2017

West Africa’s diet transformation: Will the region capitalise on its changing food demand?

Ready-to-eat baby food and other processed food products. Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

John Staatz, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics at Michigan State University, and Frank Hollinger, Economist at the Investment Centre Division (TCIA) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Demand for food in West Africa is changing dramatically, opening great opportunities to create new wealth and jobs. But will most of the wealth and jobs be created in West Africa or in the countries that export food to the region? The decisions made over the next few years by West Africans and their development partners will largely determine who benefits from this massive opportunity and its attendant challenges.

Rapidly evolving demand

Driven by strong population growth, urbanisation, rising incomes and changing consumer preferences, West Africans are not only eating more food each year but are also changing what they eat. As incomes rise and most consumers — including the nearly half of West Africans who now live in cities — become increasingly time-poor, people are demanding a more diverse diet that is easier to prepare and consume. Amongst the rising middle class — now a quarter of West Africa’s population — demand for perishable foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and animal-based products, is rising quickly. Safely and efficiently producing and delivering these to consumers entails tight co-ordination along all stages of the food system — from seed to the consumer’s table — requiring upgraded “hard” and “soft” infrastructure, such as reliable cold chains and improved product grades and standards. The good news is that if such improvements can be made, the production, processing and marketing of these products are much more labour-intensive than those of cereals, offering the opportunity to create many new jobs for West Africa’s burgeoning labour market.

Diet diversification is not just limited to perishables and the middle class, however. Across all income classes and geographic areas, West Africans are consuming a wider range of starchy staples (cereals, roots and tubers) than in the past, including more convenient “fast foods” derived from them, such as garb and attack. Demand for convenience – foods that are quick and easy to prepare and consume – is an overarching trend cutting across all countries and income groups. Increasingly pressed for time, consumers are willing to pay for others in the food system (processors, street-food vendors) to carry out some or all of the food processing and preparation for them, leading to rapidly growing demand for post-harvest activities.

The food system’s response

The response from the different levels of West Africa’s food system – farm-level production, food processing, retailing and policy – to these changes in demand has been mixed. Since 2008, when world prices of cereals spiked to record levels and most West African governments launched special food production initiatives, the ECOWAS region’s output of rice, maize and cassava has increased at between 6.5% and 7.9% per year — a remarkable achievement.  But production of perishables, particularly animal-based products like meat and milk, either stagnated or fell. Public-sector expenditures on agriculture have grown rapidly, but most of the increased spending has focused on farm-level production, with a heavy emphasis on fertiliser and seed subsidies. Relatively few funds have gone to the R&D and extension needed to boost long-term farm productivity, or to improving critical post-harvest activities such as product aggregation, wholesaling, processing, packaging and retailing. As a result, many larger-scale food processors in West Africa face difficulties obtaining locally the raw agricultural products in the quantities and qualities they need to operate their plants near capacity; hence, they often turn to imports. At the same time, small and medium-scale processors frequently have problems meeting the quality and packaging demands of the growing middle class, who then also turn to imports.

What’s needed to capture the new opportunities?

Much of the recent agricultural policy focus has been on understanding farmers’ constraints and helping overcome them. Yet in increasingly buyer-driven agricultural value chains, consumers are the ultimate financiers of the food system. Therefore, an improved understanding of their evolving preferences in terms of quality, convenience, safety and other food attributes is a prerequisite for producers to respond better to demand trends and successfully compete with imports.

At the same time, price still matters a lot to the three-fourths of West African consumers who subsist on less than USD 2 per day. Raising the price of food through higher import barriers designed to protect local farmers undermines these consumers’ real incomes and is probably a political non-starter. The only sustainable way to strengthen their food security while maintaining production incentives is to improve efficiency throughout the food system by improving “hard” and “soft” infrastructure.

Policy needs to focus on six areas to help West Africans capture the opportunities offered by the region’s evolving food demand:

  1. Improve the quality of public investment. More attention should focus on improving the performance of the off-farm elements of the food system (such as marketing, processing, packaging and logistics), which are increasingly under stress. At the farm level, public expenditures need to emphasise investments in infrastructure, technology development and farmer support services, rather than just input subsidies, to boost long-term productivity.
  2. Improve rural-urban linkages and intraregional trade. The strongest growth in demand for food will continue to come from urban areas, especially in coastal countries. Investments in transport, marketing infrastructure and regulatory reforms to improve market access, reduce post-harvest losses and expand input markets and support services in the rural hinterland will be critical in allowing West African farmers to capture a large share of this growing demand.
  3. Deepen regional integration. Free movement of goods and services reduces price volatility and allows the development of cross-border value chains. Moreover, to be competitive in a wide range of products with large global actors such as Brazil, China and India, West African agriculture needs to capture some of the scale economies those countries enjoy in agricultural research, input markets and technology development, among others.
  4. Build the skills base for West Africa’s food system in the 21st century. Transforming West Africa’s food system into a modern driver of economic growth will require a profoundly different set of skills than currently exist in most ECOWAS countries. Needed actions include strengthening basic literacy; linking curricula in primary and secondary schools to applications in farming and agro-industry; expanding vocational education programmes in the large range of technical skills needed by workers in a modern food system; attracting more girls to the sciences, given the important role that women play in West African agriculture; and broadening undergraduate university education in agricultural faculties to include fields such as food science, packaging and logistics.
  5. Improve policy co-ordination. Due to the growing importance of the off-farm segments of the food system and the environmental, nutritional and health implications of agricultural growth, food system policy-making needs to move beyond the traditional confines of agricultural ministries. Addressing many of the key constraints to more rapid and inclusive food system growth requires improved policy co-ordination and harmonisation between sectors, actors and along different levels of government, from supra-national to local levels.
  6. Improve policy implementation. Improving policy implementation means producing better data and a stronger evidence base for policies, investing in the capacities of key agencies and organisations charged with implementation, as well as ensuring the overall coherence of policies and programmes. The existence of robust national and regional private sector and civil-society stakeholder groups and a free press act as counterweights to inefficient policy implementation and rent seeking.

Useful links

Staatz, J. and F. Hollinger (2016), “West African Food Systems and Changing Consumer Demands”, West African Papers, No. 04, OECD Publishing, Paris

Agricultural growth in West Africa: Market and policy drivers. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and African Development Bank. French version: Croissance agricole en Afrique de l’Ouest: Facteurs déterminants de marché et de politique

The main sector of economic activity in West Africa consists of feeding its population  Laurent Bossard, Director, OECD Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat



Can African agriculture significantly contribute towards feeding the world by 2050 and beyond?

world-food-day-2016Ousman Tall, Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat

There are growing concerns about the world feeding itself in 2050 and beyond, and many consider that Africa has the potential to positively impact this enormous, though not insurmountable, challenge. Is this wishful thinking or reality based on the success stories of agricultural production and productivity on the African continent? Or, is it based on Africa’s untapped potential and its readiness to ensure that everything is put in place to make this dream a reality?

According to Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, “Africa may have the potential in agriculture, but you cannot eat potential”. Discussing Africa’s potential requires an understanding of the challenges impeding agricultural growth and development on the continent. Based on my experience and understanding of agricultural development trends in Africa, the continent is far from feeding itself in 2050, due to a combination of several factors, which are equally reinforcing and which affect all sectors of the agricultural economy. Take for example, the food crops sub-sector in Africa.

Yields in Africa for a majority of food crops are below the world average and substantial progress can be made. However, boosting yields requires more and better research to generate new and appropriate technologies as well as increased funding for the dissemination and adoption of these technologies to ensure that essential farming inputs are available and affordable. Agricultural research institutes in Africa lack the funding to carry out the research required to address yield deficits. Similarly, farmers cannot afford the high cost of inputs and most countries are not in the position to provide subsidies.

Rice paddy yields by continent (2007-14)


Source: FAOSTAT-Agriculture (database), Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome

Furthermore, if the plan to increase yields in Africa were to be based on the context of the Asian Green Revolution, the costs for Africa could outweigh the benefits. The Green Revolution was based on the massive introduction of improved varieties, agro-chemicals and investment in infrastructure. Africa simply cannot introduce the use of agro-chemicals on a colossal scale to increase yields. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for less than 2 percent of the total fertilizer used in the world, not as a matter of choice, but partly due to its high cost or to a lack of understanding of its usage. Moreover, the misapplication of agrochemicals is detrimental to the environment and human health. Rather, the development of appropriate varietal technologies to increase yields, amidst a decline in the agricultural labour force, should focus on improvements in labour-saving technologies and farmer field schools.

The rate of urban growth in Africa is one of the highest in the world. In West Africa alone, the urban population will reach 500 million in 2050. Increased urbanisation translates into a substantial decline in agricultural workers, who are predominantly rural dwellers. In fact, the ratio of the non-agricultural to the agricultural population in West Africa is expected to increase by 250 percent in 2050. Urbanisation is moving in the same direction for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa and keeping up the pace of food production on the continent will require massive transformation in the agricultural production system.

Africa is already feeling the effects of climate change. The continent is experiencing recurrent droughts and floods for which tolerant and resistant crop varieties need to be developed. Using different climate models, the World Bank predicts that many parts of sub-Saharan Africa will become hotter and drier and that the extent of drylands might increase up to 20% by 2030. Land for crop production in some African countries, especially those in the tropical rainforest zones, will become scarce as a result of the global pressure to spare the forest and preserve the environment. Further warming of the earth will increase land unsuitable for farming and at the same time affect crop yields. In a World Bank report on extreme climate and its impacts, a warming of 1.5°C would reduce sorghum yields alone by 10%.

Notwithstanding these challenges, the continent offers numerous opportunities for agricultural growth and development. There is a huge market potential, supported by an increasing demand in food staples as a result of increased population growth and per capita consumption. The level of regional integration and co-operation taking place within the Regional Economic Communities will stimulate agricultural production and market linkages. Whereas agricultural land in other parts of the world is becoming scarce, Africa is home to 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. The continent is presently home to 19 percent of the world’s youth population, which is expected to double by 2030. This young, and largely unemployed and unskilled population could become the engine of agricultural growth.

The theme of this year’s World Food Day is Climate is changing. Food and Agriculture Must too. If Africa is to be an example for the rest of the world in how to sustainably increase food production to feed a growing population, then the policy trajectory of the food and agricultural economy must be rethought in order to appropriately factor in not only climate change, which is vital, but all of the issues mentioned above. African researchers and technicians can play a crucial role in addressing these issues by actively and emphatically guiding their policy makers. Unless we do so, per capita food production will diminish and African agriculture’s opportunity to show the world how to feed itself by 2050 will remain an illusion.

Useful links

Food-related information on the West Africa Gateway

World Food Day 2015: Building Resilient Societies and Breaking the Cycle of Rural Poverty in the Sahel and West Africa Region Ousman Tall on OECD Insights

Nigeria is the winner, West Africa, too!

Nigeria's new broom
Nigeria’s new broom

Today’s post is by Julia Wanjiru of the Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat

During the past weeks, analysts continuously warned about Nigeria’s high-risk elections. The initial poll date was postponed by three weeks in response to security concerns in the three Boko Haram plagued northeastern states. All land and sea borders were closed three days before the contest; expatriates and well-off Nigerians carefully moved their families out of the country, anxious about possible post-electoral violence. But in the end, Africa’s most populous country and number 1 economy managed to organise peaceful elections, which were internationally recognised as “free and fair” and led to the first democratic transition in Nigeria’s history.

Many Nigerians, including those in the diaspora who closely watched the event, were relieved when President Goodluck Jonathan recognised his defeat. On 31 March at 5:15pm, he called his challenger Major-General Muhammadu Buhari to congratulate him, almost nine hours before the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, formally declared Buhari winner of the poll. “I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word. […] nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian. The unity, stability and progress of our dear country are more important than anything else,” President Jonathan declared. This early statesmanlike decision to accept the result undoubtedly contributed to avoiding post-electoral violence.

Religious and ethnic affiliations have always played an important role in Nigerian politics. However, all major political parties cover the whole territory and are comprised of Christians and Muslims alike. Within the powerful People’s Democratic Party (PDP) which has governed the country for the past 16 years, a rotating system was established alternating power between a northern Muslim president supported by a southern Christian vice-president and vice versa. In the eyes of many northern Nigerians, this informal power-sharing agreement was broken when acting President Goodluck Jonathan (the first Ijaw president coming from one of the southern Niger Delta minority groups) was elected president in 2011 (see the 2011 interview with Nigerian Ambassador to France). His decision to run for president again in 2015 was perceived as provocation by many PDP party members. With the Katsina State-born new president, power is shifting back to the Muslim-dominated North, re-establishing a certain sense of justice in the eyes of some.

Can Buhari’s victory be seen as a revenge of the Muslim North against the Christian South? Not really. The election results seem to show that the role of ethnic, religious and geographic factors is gradually shrinking. The 2015 election results map indicating the winning parties by state illustrates that the North-South divide is less marked than in the 2011 elections when President Jonathan won with a comfortable majority against Buhari.


These results must be nuanced and interpreted against the backdrop of a very low voter turnout (43.6%) which had a major impact on the PDP results. Almost ten million people who cast their votes in the 2011 elections, decided not to participate in the 2015 poll. While Buhari was able to gain the confidence of 3.2 million additional voters, the incumbent president lost almost ten million votes compared to the 2011 elections.

The PDP results map reveals that even during the 2011 elections the presumed North-South divide was less strong in reality. President Jonathan was able to gather wide support across the nation. He won between 30 to 50% of votes in six northern states, notably in the populous state of Kaduna where the PDP garnered the support of 1.19 million people (46.3% of votes).

PDP results

Similarly, this time, the same opposition candidate, Buhari attracted strong support from southern Nigerians. His newly formed All Progressives Congress party (APC) won in eight traditionally PDP southern strongholds. The most striking example comes from the megacity Lagos where the PDP lost for the first time in its history. This new voting behaviour is further leveraged by influential opinion leaders (e.g. former president Obasanjo) and religious figures who publically distanced themselves from the current government. For example, a Catholic priest openly called for a vote for Buhari: “I don’t care if Buhari is a Muslim and from the North; all I care about is that Buhari can save Nigeria”, he said.

Nigerians largely voted for change. Buhari’s “vote for positive change” slogan convinced many Nigerians who are hoping to put an end to corruption, poverty and the Islamist insurgency in the North. In his acceptance speech, Buhari made a strong commitment: “I assure all foreign governments that Nigeria will become a more forceful and constructive player in the global fight against terrorism and in other matters of collective concern, such as the fight against drugs, climate change, financial fraud, communicable diseases and other issues requiring global response. I want to assure our fellow African nations that Nigeria will now stand as a more constructive partner in advancing the matters of concern to our continent, particularly with regard to economic development and eradication of poverty.”

Beyond Nigeria, West Africa is a winner too. Nigeria has a major impact on the whole West African region far beyond its immediate neighbours. A large part of West African economic activity is concentrated in Nigeria. Cross-border activities closely link Niger to the Hausa economy; Benin and Togo benefit from the vitality of the economic and commercial capital of Lagos and Ibadan. Cameroon and Chad’s trade are also strongly oriented towards the Nigerian market. Nigeria is increasingly making investments in the franc zone, particularly in the banking sector. As West Africa’s largest military power it has historically played a leading role in ECOWAS peacekeeping efforts, though slightly less so now as it suffers its own major security crisis. Boko Haram-related violence is spilling over to neighbouring countries already grappling with a strong influx of Nigerian refugees. A pacified, strong Nigeria will benefit all of West Africa.

Useful links

OECD Investment Policy Reviews: Nigeria 2015

SWAC Maps and Facts:
– Number 22, Nigeria’s presidential election, April 2015
– Number 5, Boko Haram November 2014

Atlas of the Sahara-Sahel:
Historically, the Sahara plays an intermediary role between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Commercial and human exchanges are intense and based on social networks that now include trafficking. Understanding their structure, geographical and organizational mobility of criminal groups and migratory movements represents a strategic challenge. The Atlas is based on an analysis of mapped regional security issues and development objectives to open the necessary dialogue between regional and international organizations, governments, researchers and local stakeholders tracks.

West Africa Gateway/Portail de l’Afrique de l’Ouest:
The West Africa Gateway, managed by the SWAC Secretariat, provides a regional database, a map centre, a document library, a contact database, an events calendar, thematic dossiers, West African viewpoints, interviews etc. The Gateway is also dedicated to sharing information and promoting work produced by SWAC Members.