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Africa Can Help Feed Africa: Removing Regional Barriers to Trade in Food Staples

This discussion highlighted new research which suggested that the continent could generate an extra US$20 billion in yearly earnings if African leaders can agree to dismantle trade barriers that blunt more regional dynamism.

Date & Time

Jan. 9, 2013
2:30pm – 4:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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A Question of Will

Overall, it appears the only way that these pressures can be diffused is if stakeholders summon the will to reform and set standards across the region. All of the panelists maintained that the responsibility of national and international policymakers is to assure that the trade of food staples is free, open, and fair for the countries involved. Standardizing commerce will not only provide a necessary uniformity to the distribution of these food staples, but it could, in turn, provide yet another mechanism for cooperation and collaboration for African governments.

Africa Feeding Africa: The Obstacles to Promoting African Agricultural Productivity

Africa’s regional barriers to trade in food staples “is a topic that is obviously very, very important for [the continent],” remarked Makhtar Diop, Vice President for Africa at the World Bank. For the bulk of his career, Diop has focused on trade and integration for Africa.Image removed. “We need to understand the dynamics” to see if these relationships can alleviate the food insecurity that confronts the continent. The Africa Can Help Feed Africa: Removing Regional Barriers to Trade in Food Staples report released in October 2012 by the World Bank is part of a series that concentrates on intraregional trade. This report, however, is unique because it “moves the focus from general barriers to trade in Africa to focus on food,” so that policymakers can move away from crisis response and address food insecurity at a base level.

The suggestions outlined in this report could promote agricultural self-sufficiency, as well as lead to poverty reduction on the continent. The fluctuation in the prices of food staples too often impacts Africa’s poorest and this phenomenon is exacerbated by the increasing demand for food, especially in urban centers. Another impediment to African food production is the small amount of fertile land currently being used to harvest crop yields. According to World Bank estimates, only 10 percent of the 400 million hectares available in sub-Saharan Africa is utilized. This is caused by myriad factors including, “poor irrigation, very low productivity, and very low access to a certain number of factors of production.”

Moreover, Diop cited the fragmentation of the food market and the lack of predictable policy as factors that have proven to obstruct private investment in the African food production sector. The unwillingness of investors to commit is compounded by the small economies that characterize agricultural production. He charged that the lack of investment in transport infrastructure, the diminished trucking and shipping capacity, and the high costs of import fees and tariffs are major inhibitors to economic growth. As a result, Africa’s ability to achieve agricultural sustainability is thwarted.  The Vice President said that the effect of these burdens could be lessened if the transport sector were privatized.

Finally, Diop spoke of farmers’ needs of accessing quality seed and fertilizers as this will help further reduce the domestic prices of food staples in these regional blocks. He posited that it was not only the regulation of internal inputs, but their interaction with externalities that would have a positive and direct impact on agricultural production. This would be accomplished if a regional institutionalization of agricultural production policy were implemented to focus on this set of practical issues. To expedite the integration process, the World Bank has taken steps to develop a forum in which African leaders can dialogue with regard to the hurdles to removing trade barriers in the food sector.

The Movement of Food: How and Why Africa Became a Food Importer

After Diop’s remarks, a short film by the World Bank was screened. The intention of “An Africa that Can Feed Africa” was to convey how Africa’s past has impacted its agricultural sector into one primarily concerned with exports. Despite the presence of such organizations as COMESA, ECOWAS, and the African Union (AU) that are designed to facilitate cooperation among member states, individual countries are still unable to feed their populations. The film demonstrated how “trade [outside] Africa flows much more easily than the trade within Africa; trade is not flowing.”  Africa’s need to prioritize agriculture is imperative. The regulation of the factors of production is inherently linked to assuring the socioeconomic and political progress of the continent.

Addressing the Regional Barriers to Trade in Food Staples

Formerly, “Africa was…known as that continent, not because of its people, but because of the ugliness highlighted [in the film]: the ugly faces of war animated by refugees, hunger and instability.” H.E. Amélia Matos Sumbana, Ambassador of the Republic of Mozambique to the United States, responded to with an air of caution as she emphasized some of the film’s controversial claims. Although African nations are grateful for the help that they have received from Western donors and international organizations, Ambassador Sumbana argued that the regional barriers to the trade of food staples can only be solved by Africans themselves, not external actors. The Ambassador held that sound natural resource management, trade, and economic liberalization are “inherently linked to peace, security, democracy and good governance.” “The paradigm in Africa is changing…and the main problems have been identified for the continent, not only in the [SADC] region,” and it is now the responsibility of leaders to make the necessary choices to combat poverty.

It seems that the challenge, in an African context, to addressing food security is scaling up the capability of small-holder agricultural producers.  Todd Amani, Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), described how “President Obama’s policy towards sub-Saharan Africa has been focused on spurring economic development and trade” and promoting a stable environment for internal and external investment. Governments, Amani stressed, are responsible for assuring that economic growth is fostered within their borders, as well as forging a relationship with the private sector, because that is where job creation is founded. Amani concluded by underlining how the Agency’s cooperation with the AU and regional economic communities is essential as African led changes are the most sustainable. This will also assure that protectionism and corruption do not characterize trade in the agricultural sector.

According to Daniel Karanja, Vice President of the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa, “evidence now proves that Africa…can feed itself; the potential is definitely there.” Karanja also stressed the importance of regional integration to promote sustainable agricultural trade policy. All of the issues addressed during the discussion can be remedied if avenues of communication are opened between the government, the private sector, and the international community to ensure that grievances at various levels are acknowledged and rectified. Similarly, the rising middle class is a pressure in and of itself owing to its increasing demand for a larger variety of food. In sum, Karanja advocated for connecting the African farmer to surging urban markets and then exposing them to regional agricultural integration.

Marcelo Giugale, Director of Economic Policy and Poverty Reduction Programs for Africa at the World Bank, coordinates the work of some 200 economists “that are dedicated exclusively to Africa…and feel very passionately about this issue.” From working with these scholars and practitioners, Giugale has come to realize two things. For one, Africa’s global integration via commodities trade has been disappointing. However, Giugale suggested that the continent has failed at self-integration. As a result, while global trade and cooperation have helped ameliorate Africa’s international status, it has done little to bring the jobs needed to allay its daunting poverty and hunger. Integration, in his mind, means not only the vertical integration of markets, but the services, finance, and factors of production therein. “We know where the problem is, and we so far have only acted on tariff barriers,” but to enact any sort of real, systemic reform, Giugale said that the more difficult challenge lies in the nontariff barriers to trade. 


Hosted By

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

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