Making policies work

West Africa: How can the region feed itself?

In a series of stories for our Annual Report 2016, we highlight some of our ongoing and past projects. Read our story on West African value chains below or download the whole report here. 

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When a region with exceptional food production potential imports more and more food, it is worth asking why it is not managing to feed itself instead. West Africa is one such region, with a paradoxically negative trade balance in food. Despite its high potential, West Africa exports a very narrow range of goods, dominated by extractives and a few agricultural products like cocoa.

At the same time, food is being imported to the region from outside Africa. Not only has local production been unable to match the growing demand, but there is little trade within the region. What has held West Africa back from exploiting its agricultural potential? Why does it seem easier for West African countries to import food from afar, than from each other?

The fact that some 75% of intra-regional trade takes place informally and is undocumented makes it particularly difficult to answer these questions. Lack of data creates a blind spot, not only on trade volumes, but also on trade compositions, geographical patterns and dynamics. What kinds of goods are being transported along which routes? What trade bypasses the main economic corridors? Who are the people in the value chains, and what obstacles do they face? These questions have to be answered to develop comprehensive policies that support food security and inclusive development.

What ECDPM does

Given that West Africa’s intra-regional trade dynamics cannot be adequately understood from literature and statistics, ECDPM took a closer look at the realities and agricultural value chain development. To get to the bottom of these dynamics, we focused on crops and livestock. These are two strategic sectors critical for food security.

By fostering understanding and facilitating dialogues among the stakeholders, we aim to support the design and implementation of effective policies that take into account political economy aspects and do justice to the realities on the ground. Our analysis of the drivers and constraints affecting the region’s value chains and trade corridors have opened a new window on trade in West Africa.

Highlights of 2016

In April and May, we visited Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali and Niger to conduct interviews with key stakeholders from the public and private sector, regional and national producers associations, technical and financial partners, NGOs and value-chain experts. The missions produced new information on the realities on the ground.

A scoping study carried out with the African Studies Centre Leiden and the Agricultural Economics Research Institute of Wageningen University produced a more contextualised and comprehensive picture of the Dutch government’s ongoing cooperation with West Africa, as well as offering a forward perspective in terms of policy options.

In September, we contributed to the second Contact Group meeting of the Accelerating Trade in West Africa Programme (ATWA) in Abidjan. We took part in the debates on establishment of transport corridors for inclusive development in West Africa, including agro-food value chains.

Learn more

Want to learn more about our work on West African value chains or have thoughts you’d like to share? Visit or contact Fabien Tondel, Sean Woolfrey or Carmen Torres.

Interested in learning more about our activities and their impact in 2016? Download the full 2016 Annual Report here.

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Photo courtesy of Carmen Torres, ECDPM.