West Africa's food potential and the case for staple foods - IFAD/FAO analyses regional value chains

The domino effect of the financial meltdown, speculative pressure on once ignored food markets and the global energy crisis sent food commodity prices careening in 2007. Consumers would be forced to dive deep into their pockets even as their incomes shrunk against the gargantuan demands of the international market. Yet, for West Africa, the effects were nothing new, for years the region’s citizens have battled sprinting commodities matched only by a legacy of inadequate food production.

West Africa's risky  reliance on imported staple foods is restricting smallholder farmers from their own markets. Enabling market access is not just another form of outreach but is mitigating against a fundamental injustice. If we accept that people have a right to food security, then for producers this is inextricably linked to market security. If West Africa can improve its staple food production, then it not only saves potential billions in foreign exchange, it can dramatically improve the livelihoods of its large population of smallholder farmers.

At the recently held CFS, Aziz Elbehri Senior Economist at the FAO, presented the preliminary findings of a five year study on how to scale up the value chains of  commonly eaten staple crops like Maize, Rice, Sorghum and Cassava in the region. The product of a joint FAO and IFAD partnership spearheaded by IFAD’s West and Central Africa Division and FAO’s Trade and Markets Division, it  builds on a previous European Union funded research on selected value chains in the region. The report  identified best practices across the region and also explored ways government and private sector could collaborate.

     West African staple crops on sale in Rome's Vittorio Emanuele Market
Rallying the actors

The food price crisis and its effects on national import bills was a wake up call for some of the region's governments . "There was an increased attention to staple foods...we saw national initiatives to improve maize, rice and cassava value chains,’’ said Elbehri. The staple crops study reviewed these national investment strategies and their implementation, researchers analysed how investments should be prioritised in local contexts, how to improve the competitiveness of relevant chains and more importantly, how to ensure that the potential growth that comes as a result of this scaling up is pro-poor and gender responsive. It analysed cassava value chains in Ghana and Cameroon, rice and sorghum in Mali , rice in Senegal and Maize in Burkina Faso among others.   
Promoting a multi-actor model of partnership, including  public agencies, credit agencies, agro-industry and producers, the report stressed the importance of capacity development, particularly for producer organisations in the region.
West African governments were also urged to provide a ‘balance of domestic policies with regional trade facilitation’ and the report suggested that the region was missing a unique opportunity to bring lucrative informal trade networks into the formal economy.
Mamadou Sissoko, honorary president of The Network of Peasant Organizations and Producers in West Africa (ROPPA), who was invited to review the findings, pointed to several areas which he felt could be more widely explored by researchers.
Sissoko said that governments and the international community must see agriculture as a ‘public good’ and that systems that allow fair pricing to farmers must be developed and easily accessible. He also stressed the need for calamity funds and access to improved technologies. A farmer himself, Sissoko then advocated for the use of animal traction which he said could increase farm production by sixty percent for many smallholders.

Beyond reporting

The report may prove to be a valuable asset to governments developing value chain investment strategies. Unquestionably, if this study promotes smallholder’s inclusion then it must also be accessible (at the minimum) to the region's producer organisations. If  it is to go beyond reporting then it must be transformative. The findings should be shared as widely as possible for the benefit of all the relevant stakeholders and in languages and media that can be easily understood and appreciated.
A section on the lessons learnt from the maize value chain could become the basis of a teaching or advocacy tool for these producers. This document (and all relevant IFAD/FAO studies) should feed into a knowledge bank and be shared with partners, especially the groups that need empowering information most - producer networks.
Through dialogue with regional partners working on staple crop value chains (such as WFP’s the Purchase for Progress initiative or federal cooperative agencies), valuable lessons learnt can be shared with the management and membership of producer organisations. This would help to sensitize regional groups to the potential bottlenecks within their value chains as well as help them create appropriate solutions.

If West African countries are to scale up their staple crop production, then as the study noted, partnerships, knowledge sharing and an inclusion of all actors – particularly women and other marginalized groups -- is essential. IFAD must continue to partner with other UN agencies to increase global understanding of local challenges, while simultaneously ensuring that those at the grassroots remain engaged.

7/11/2013: FAO's Trade and Markets Division indicates that plans are in place to distribute publications based on the study to producer organisations in the region. 

Patrina Pink is an intern in the Communications Division of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD. She is also completing a Masters in Human Development and Food Security.