In January 2013, a conference was organised by ECOWAS and USAID in Ghana on the free circulation of food products in that region. The objective was to identify measures to be implemented to ensure that regional agricultural trade promotes food security in West Africa. A background document on the volume and value of agricultural trade in the region, prepared by USAID, focused on trade in cattle, onions, cereals (millet, sorghum and maize) and rice along trade corridors linking nine ECOWAS countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo). Several information notes were also prepared on specific issues affecting intra-regional trade (e.g., harassment of road hauliers, export restrictions, rules of origin certification, non-recognition of equivalence in sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls, and application of VAT to agricultural products).
The nominal elimination of tariffs on intra-regional trade in food products was noted. However, the limited application of these commitments was highlighted, partly as a result of non-recognition of originating status (linked in part to repackaging and relabelling of imported raw materials, such as Asian palm oil) and partly as a result of shortcomings in the design and application of the ECOWAS trade liberalisation scheme, with its complex system of product registration.
The main background document highlighted the dominance of informal trade in West Africa, estimating that “official statistics probably capture about one-fourth of actual transactions, in value.” A lack of harmonisation of VAT rates charged on agricultural products was also highlighted, and early harmonisation was therefore recommended.
Conference participants highlighted the following priority areas:
- the establishment of a network of effective and responsive hotlines to report on anomalies;
- better training for custom officials and monitoring of their functioning;
- use of digital cashless systems at borders;
- distribution of a community guide on trade regulations and establishment of information centres for the private sector, as is currently being initiated by the Borderless Alliance;
- empowerment of ECOWAS or WAEMU “to impress sanctions on member states for non-application of regional commitments”.
A study by French development NGO GRET on the main obstacles to regional agricultural trade in West Africa and the EAC, published in December 2012, identified a number of problems and areas for action in West Africa. These included:
- improving transport and communication infrastructures, both regional roads and links between the main production areas and main regional markets;
- removing obstacles to efficient transport logistics management;
- removing de facto the non-tariff barriers to regional trade, including through the introduction of sanctions for non-compliance;
- supporting the development of smallholder farms, agro-food small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and the structural development of food supply chains;
- enhancing the political leadership at regional level to ensure effective support to sector- and product-specific development strategies;
- supporting increased participation of civil society and professional organisations in order to improve policy formulation and implementation.
West African countries have identified a list of priority commodities in their National Agricultural Investments Plans (NAIPs) to guide future investment priorities. Given that many of the priority products are common to most West African countries, efforts are under way to promote regional trade to enhance regional food security.
In view of commitments made at the regional level to free movement of agricultural products, many of the nationally implemented restrictions are not systematically documented. This gives added importance to initiatives such as the Borderless Alliance and similar initiatives that seek to track and address obstacles to intra-regional agricultural trade.
Proposals for the “establishment of a network of effective and responsive hotlines to report on anomalies” will need to be backed up by the establishment at national level of effective institutional capacities to respond to and progressively eliminate the identified obstacles to trade. Digitisation of payments could greatly facilitate this process, although it would not completely remove the possibility of corruption.
These steps need to form part of wider investments aimed at systematically removing identified barriers. In addition:
- the redesign of national rules and regulations, within a commonly agreed regional framework, needs to be systematically supported and monitored;
- national enforcement mechanisms need to be strengthened and their performance monitored;
- these need to be backed up by investments in infrastructure to improve national compliance with regional standards (a particularly important issue in the food safety and SPS field).
These national-level actions need to be accorded priority, with regionally coordinated actions progressively raising the bar for compliance, while the private sector plays a critical role in monitoring and ensuring enforcement of agreed commitments.