Washington, DC — Rising global food costs and low African food production require African governments to work to open regional agricultural trade to help improve productivity, says Makhtar Diop, vice president of the World Bank.
Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, Diop cited a recent World Bank report, "Africa Can Help Feed Africa: Removing Regional Barriers to Regional Trade in Food Staples", in explaining that volatile global food prices and an increasing demand for staple foods in Africa – expected to double by 2020 – leave the nearly 870 million people suffering from hunger on the continent at risk.
"High food prices are becoming the new normal," Diop said but, "we believe there is the potential, with the right policies, to increase significantly the production of agriculture and food in Africa."
Africa's crop potential is enormous, agriculture specialists say. The World Bank report estimates that just 10 percent of the 400 million hectares of land in the Guinea Savannah Zone – a large swath of land stretching from Uganda to Tanzania – has been cultivated. African yields for many crops are lower than what farmers achieve elsewhere in the world and African farmers contribute a mere five percent of food imports into African countries.
Poor productivity is partly due to Africa's fragmented regional food markets and unpredictable government policies that have dissuaded private investment in important areas such as trucking and storage, but it is also a result of trade barriers and restrictions imposed on agricultural inputs and goods by African countries.
Export bans, permits, licenses, costly documentary requirements, and difficult border crossings all constrict regional trade in food and agricultural inputs – problems that governments can work to address, the report said. "These are not restraints imposed by the World Trade Organisation (WTO)," Diop said. "Political groups are creating barriers to trade with other countries because they want to protect domestic rents for some goods."
The removal of these barriers and the implementation of transparent and predictable standards for intra-Africa trade is particularly important for the hundreds of thousands of smallholder traders – mostly women – who cross borders daily. A World Bank survey of traders crossing border posts between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda in 2010 found that nearly 20 percent of traders experienced long waits, over 80 percent paid bribes to customs officials, 60 percent paid fines, and more than 50 percent experienced acts of violence and sexual abuse.
Where they have been introduced, best practices in customs procedures, processes and technologies have reduced the time, costs and red tape associated with trading in Africa, said Todd Amani, senior deputy assistant administrator for USAID's Africa bureau, said during a panel discussion following Diop's remarks.
In southern Africa, USAID-supported efforts to extend operating hours along the trans-Kalahari border and introduce a single customs declaration contributed to a 12-fold increase of usage of the corridor, according to Amani. He said that in East Africa customs reform in 2010 resulted in the implementation of a common software platform that helped reduce the time it takes to transport goods along the Mombasa-Kigali corridor by five days.
The ability to easily move agricultural goods across African borders is essential to making agriculture an engine of growth, Amani said. "Unless we get rid of these barriers, countries, particularly smaller countries, are not going to benefit and see the incentives that can be developed through regional trade."