Sustainable livestock value chains in West Africa: Can regional organisations rise to the challenges?

Livestock production and trade accounts for a large part of the agri-food economy and intra-regional trade in West Africa. Livestock products contribute to food security and nutrition, as sources of nutrients and income for households. With urban demand for meat growing, regional policies aim at promoting the sector, for rural development, industrialisation and food security. But cross-border movement and pastoralists’ livelihoods remain marred by tensions and hurdles. Responding to the economic, social and environmental challenges facing this sector, illuminated in more detail in our recent study on the West African livestock sector, represents an opportunity to demonstrate the value of regional cooperation for sustainable development. This can only happen with a better understanding of the interests and incentives of key actors on the ground.

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      A thorny regional problem

      The livestock-meat sector is a great illustration of the regional dimension of economic growth and diversification. It is largely based on the movement of cattle and small ruminants between Sahelian production zones and coastal consumption centres, to access seasonal pastures and get animals to markets. This cross-border production and trading system rest upon a complex web of herders, traders, transporters, brokers and distributors, many of them operating in the informal sector.

      But  the traditional system is increasingly confronted with a set of disruptions:

      • The regional supply of animals and meat hasn’t kept up with a dynamic demand, driven by household income growth and urbanisation, in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Pastoralists and agro-pastoralists are still the major suppliers of animals, but many obstacles stand between them and rapidly evolving downstream markets, including the high costs of moving livestock across borders and the risks associated with this trade. Low levels of organisation in the value chain have hindered investments in logistical capacities (market, transport and cold chain infrastructure) and processing activities as well as access to finance.
      • Rapid growth in livestock herds, at the same time as the expansion of farmland and urbanised areas, has put increasing pressure on natural resources upon which pastoral and agro-pastoral systems rely, creating tensions between farmers and herders, often with tragic conflicts between communities.
      • Already weakened by severe dry spells in the past few decades and exposed to increasingly erratic weather patterns, pastoralists have also had to contend with unfavourable security conditions in the Sahel and cross-border areas.

      These trends are exacerbated by low levels of public investment to support the pastoral sector in both Sahelian and coastal countries and the exclusion of pastoralists from public policy processes.

      Involving actors with diverse agendas

      In principle, policies helping to organise and consolidate the livestock-meat value chain and to improve the efficiency of cross-border trade could address some of those issues. Promoting better coordination among actors in the value chain, and between public and private actors, would be a start. That might help to regulate cross-border livestock movement and enable public-private partnerships to plan and finance investments supporting the development of the value chain. It could also result in scale economies and additional private investments in logistical capacities and specialised skills for the transportation and handling of animals and products, thereby allowing for productivity gains.

      But this is to ignore some of the underlying dynamics of the value chain. For example, the structure and performance of the livestock-meat value chain in the central trade basin – Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Mali, a major conduit for cattle trade, has been strongly shaped by the politico-military crises of the 2000’s in Côte d’Ivoire. During the first crisis, the Forces Nouvelles took control of the northern half of the Ivorian territory and of its infrastructure, enabling a network of traders to consolidate their positions in livestock trading; and, as a result, to wield considerable power over the value chain.

      The concentration of trading activities in the hands of a few operators, who also invest in other stages of the value chain, now risks marginalising herders and informal, small-scale intermediaries. These underlying dynamics regarding the control of production and trade networks could pose problems for reforming the rules for domestic markets and cross-border movement in favour of the inclusion of herders and small-scale traders in the value chain. It could also make it more difficult for new, innovative actors to enter the livestock-meat market. In combination with the issues highlighted above, these developments risk being detrimental to the livelihoods of vulnerable populations and possibly to the local milk sector, which in West Africa is closely linked to pastoral and agro-pastoral systems.

      Regional organisations’ difficult task of dealing with economic and political realities

      The ECOWAS Agricultural Policy (ECOWAP) aims to promote regional agri-food value chains, including the livestock sector, given the opportunities for employment creation, particularly around the livestock-meat value chain. But, the realities described above make it difficult to achieve this. Increasing competition for the use of natural resources, farmer-herder conflicts and deteriorating security conditions mean that coastal countries, such as Côte d’Ivoire, are tempted to turn to unilateral, uncoordinated measures to restrict the movement of animals and herders into their territories through blockades, excessive taxes or similar measures. At the same time, these countries tend to promote the intensification of domestic production, with little cooperation with Sahelian countries.

      ECOWAS and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) have so far struggled to improve infrastructure and services for securing and pacifying the movement of livestock across borders and environmental sustainability. Further, divergences among ECOWAS member states’ interests, and the complexity of production and trade networks to engage with, pose difficult challenges to regional organisations and their international partners.

      With urban demand for differentiated, quality meat products growing, including in intermediaries cities, and new retail outlets emerging, such as supermarkets, the market offers space and incentives for new actors to develop more localised value chains based on contractual relations and quality norms. From a longer-term perspective, regional organisations could have a role to play in supporting research and innovation for the valorisation of livestock products, as part of territorial, bottom-up development strategies, particularly in cross-border areas. They could also further support plurilateral, strategic dialogue, with the involvement of diverse professional organisations.

      But this all requires a sound appreciation of market dynamics and prospects. WIthout that, policies and investments in the meat sector risk beefing up only a limited few in the value chain.

      To learn more about ECDPM’s work on livestock value chains in West Africa, our latest study offers a more in-depth perspective: Dynamiques régionales des filières d’élevage en Afrique de l’Ouest: Étude de cas centrée sur la Côte d’Ivoire dans le bassin commercial central [in French].

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