Barriers to trade in agricultural goods: Let’s focus on solutions, not on problems

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      Account of the “Food Across Borders” conference in West Africa

      West Africa has far-reaching commitments to promote intra-regional trade. The Economic Community of West African States’ trade liberalization scheme, launched back in 1990, provides for the elimination of tariff and non-tariff barriers between the region’s 15 member states. Also the regional agricultural policy, adopted in 2005, reflects this ambition, the regionalization of agricultural and food products is at its core. Both frameworks should contribute to food sovereignty and food security in West Africa, particularly through enhanced cross-border trade between food abundant and food deficit areas.

      Nevertheless, major obstacles to intra-regional trade in agricultural goods remain - and affect many people’s every day life. A Senegalese grain-processing entrepreneur was recently telling me that that exporting to Europe and the United States is cheaper and less cumbersome for her than exporting to many West African countries. She was amazed and frustrated.

      Key impediments to intra-regional trade are road harassments (profusion of checkpoints, long delays, bribes), export restrictions and issues related to (non-harmonisation of) certificates of origin and sanitary and phytosanitary certificates, to name a few. To illustrate, a survey covering the first quarter of 2012 indicates that this Senegalese entrepreneur when transporting a truckload of goods from Dakar in Senegal to Bamako in Mali (before the coup d’état) would on average have had to face 35 checkpoints along the way, pay a total of USD 134 in bribes and encounter about 4 hours of delay due to time spent involuntarily at checkpoints.

      I met this entrepreneur at a regional conference organized by the ECOWAS Commission and USAID titled “Food Across Borders”, which brought together an interesting mix of representatives of the public and private sector. During the discussions, participants noted that regional protocols and regulations exist to lift many of those obstacles just described, but their application at national level is lacking for a variety of reasons like ignorance, rent-seeking behavior and prevalence of short-term national interests.

      The aim of the conference was not so much to discuss bottlenecks for food to move across borders, but more ambitiously to identify, discuss and agree on solutions. Amongst the practical proposals that participants came up with are the establishment of a network of effective and responsive hotlines to report on anomalies; more training for custom officials and monitoring of their functioning; use of digitalized cashless systems at borders; dissemination of a community guide on trade regulations and establishment of information centers for the private sector, as is currently done by the Borderless Alliance.

      A more contentious instrument discussed is for countries to empower ECOWAS or UEMOA, the region’s monetary union with 8 member states, to impress sanctions on member states for non-application of regional commitments. Conversely, one could use a carrot instead of a stick by rewarding countries for incorporating regional commitments in national policies through increased access to regional funds. The regional economic community in Eastern and Southern Africa, COMESA, does this in the form of a restructured ‘adjustment facility’. Less far-reaching would be a peer review mechanism to encourage Member States to advance good practices. The latter approach of self-monitoring with reputational but no financial repercussions may be politically most feasible at this point in time and it would already imply a noteworthy advancement in transparency and accountability.

      Overall, the question remains what will come out of the proposed solutions. Stakeholders will have to show strong commitment to put this agenda for change in practice.

      Commitment from the ECOWAS Commission spoke from their high-level participation at the conference. Both the Commissioner Marc Atouga dealing with agriculture as well as Commissioner Hamid Ahmed covering trade and customs participated, a powerful team to strengthen linkages between agriculture and trade policies and practice. Their UEMOA colleague Commissioner Ibrahima Diémé dealing with rural development was also present. But most of all, the conference stood out by its many private sector participants, who represented farmers as well as food processers, ranging from small to large companies, allowing for a genuine public-private dialogue.

      To avoid that a similar conference discussing the same issues will be repeated in 5 years time without serious progress to report on, stakeholders now need to take action and work on removing obstacles to intra-regional trade in agricultural goods. Food insecurity in West Africa is too serious a problem affecting the lives of many to let that happen.


      Jeske van Seters is Deputy Programme Manager Food Security at ECDPM.

      This blog post features the author’s personal view and does not represent the view of ECDPM.


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