Regional Trade Stabilizes West Africa’s Food Supply. How Do We Make It Work Better?

Staple commodity trade across West Africa is the golden key to food security and economic security in one of the world’s poorest corners. Amid the region’s widely varying agro-ecologies and rainfall levels, trade stabilizes food availability and fuels incomes by providing markets for innumerable producers, traders, and processors.

For a decade, Abt Associates has promoted and professionalized regional trade in staple commodities in West Africa, most recently under the USAID-funded West Africa Trade and Investment Hub (WATIH) project. Our approach is two-fold: Strengthening regional and national industry associations to advance their member services, and directly assisting individual agribusinesses through buyer-seller linkages and helping broker individual transactions.

Food on the Hoof

Since 2008, Abt has helped West Africa’s regional livestock association, COFENABVI, improve services to members of national livestock federations. In 2015 and 2016, we worked with COFENABVI and local governments to open new, interior markets to sell sheep and goats before the annual Muslim Tabaski holiday, when millions of the animals typically move from inland ranges to coastal markets. These dozens of smaller markets have allowed traders to sell more livestock and boosted their profit margins.

Mr. Ouedraogo Daouda, a breeder from Burkina Faso, sold in a new market in Soubré, Côte d'Ivoire, for the first time in 2016 after years of losses at the main livestock market in the capital Abidjan. In Soubré, he said, “We sell slowly but surely.” Another trader, Mr. Ba Gnagadou from Mali, explained that he could sell in Soubré without an intermediary, avoiding extra fees per transaction.

Abt also arranges meetings between cattle fatteners from landlocked Burkina Faso and Mali and buyers in destination markets in Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal to build trust through face-to-face negotiations. At these meetings, we introduce more formal trading practices, including test contracts and using scales to accurately weigh animals. We advise sellers to professionally present their livestock for sale, with brochures and details about the animals’ breed, weight, and age. Longer-term, more formal sales also require sellers to learn more about buyers’ sourcing needs and tailor available stock accordingly.

Going with the Grain

Abt supported the West Africa Grains Network to organize regional cereals exchanges and workshops on best practices in contracting. Contracts clinched at the exchanges spelled out volume, price, and quality standards, building transparency and trust among all parties. After the exchanges, traders often seek our targeted assistance to enter into new commercial deals.

This approach is catching on, as some stakeholders are adopting structured trading mechanisms. Benin’s grains association, known as FUPRO, now only sells grain when written contracts are in place. The agricultural commodity market in Bouaké, northern Côte d’Ivoire, is shifting from informal sales to formalized trade, as illustrated by two recent maize contracts—totaling 6,000 metric tons—between wholesale traders there and Ivograin, an animal feed-processing firm in the capital Abidjan.

Through this experience, we have learned to combine approaches to maximize impact. On the industry front, we give fledgling West African associations practical tools and approaches to bring members' voices to the table to influence policy. In 2016, for example, COFENABVI persuaded the Senegalese government to reduce value-added taxes and then suspend import duties on livestock sales during Tabaski. At the same time, making transactions happen with individual firms contribute to collective wins for wider benefit, as we see with the gradual yet broad adoption of contracts in grain sales. Because so much depends on buying down the risk of transactions, the industry-focused approach and the firm-based approach together grow and professionalize West African trade in staple commodities.
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