West Africa: Regional trade – what’s the story?

West Africa benefits from a customs union but further progress is needed to achieve its regional integration.

Packing plants in a factory in West Africa © Flickr/J. Nimmo

With 16 countries, 300 million inhabitants and a GDP of over €613 billion, West Africa has huge potential. Since the ratification of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union (EU), which was signed by West African officials in October 2015, there have been many complaints about the unfairness of the agreement, especially amongst civil society. 

Emotions still run high regarding the protection of regional markets. Beyond this issue, little headway has been made on West African regional integration, with intraregional trade representing only 11% of overall trade (by comparison, around 80% of trade within the EU is intraregional). 

According to Dr Soulé Bio Goura, coordinator of the regional ProFAB programme (see p35), the EPA negotiated with the EU deserves credit for advancing the debate on West African regional integration. “By promoting trade liberalisation, the EPA has accelerated negotiations on the ECOWAS customs union, which came into force on 1 January 2015.” He adds, “Some countries are still resisting the EPA, including Nigeria, an enormous country which accounts for 60-70% of West African trade.” Nigeria has not signed the EPA, nor has The Gambia. The absence of these two countries (170 and 1.5 million inhabitants, respectively) in the EPA is worrisome for some stakeholders. 

No one actually knows how the EU will deal with these countries after October 2016, the EPA endorsement deadline. Moreover, the recent ‘Brexit’ vote could further disrupt the situation as the UK may strengthen bilateral relations with these two African countries within the Commonwealth framework. 

Implementation of EPAs in the present environment would result in the coexistence of several trade regimes, which might hamper regional market integration. 

 

Lifting the trade barriers

The private sector is nevertheless investing in regional trade. In Côte d’Ivoire for instance, Wanita Freshfoods has developed a regional market for cardboard-packaged quality bananas in response to high demand. But Philippe Mavel, European delegate of Côte d’Ivoire’s Pineapple and Banana Marketing Office, says that efforts are needed to improve regional exports and trade. He feels that although the export and transportation of products within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) are free, there is still too much red tape.

This issue is being addressed by the Food Across Borders in West Africa programme (ProFAB), coordinated by the Rural Hub on behalf of ECOWAS and WAEMU, which was launched in October 2015 for a 5-year period. It aims to enhance awareness on regional market operations through regular monitoring of flows and abnormal practices (bribes, harassment), while lobbying in favour of eliminating these practices and discussing potential policy instruments. 

 

Developing local value chains

According to Goura, the greatest challenge is to develop African value chains. Demand is growing, with increasing urbanisation (half of all West Africans live in cities), and the urban middle class is seeking access to standardised, processed and high value added products. But the local production base is not keeping step with these changes. There has consequently been a sharp rise in imports of finished food products since the beginning of the 2000s, increasing from over €3.64 billion in 2002-2004 to over €13.64 billion in the 2012-2014 period. 

“Today there is a very wide gap between domestic supply and regional market demand. Supply must be tailored  to demand or else West Africa will become a dumping ground for low-grade products from other continents,” emphasises Goura. Market flow would improve if products were standardised and highly traceable – essential criteria for exports to markets both within the region and to the EU. Developing local value chains is also an EPA challenge.  

Anne Perrin

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.