West African food trade under strain as Covid-19 shuts borders
Reuters (27 May) describes how normally it would have taken traders 2–3 days to truck mangoes the 1,200 km from southern Mali to Dakar in Senegal, but now it is taking more than twice as long. After struggling with border delays and a dawn-to-dusk curfew in Senegal, some workers have ended up dumping sacks of rotten fruit in landfill.
Data collected by the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS) shows West African traders of perishable produce and livestock have seen losses of 10–30% since health restrictions came in, as transport is disrupted and markets close, while illegal tax collection at checkpoints has leapt nearly 50%.
The impact is not universal and some trade corridors have been less affected. But Brahima Cisse, a regional markets expert at CILSS, said he had never before seen such broad-based losses.
For traders in Benin, the new coronavirus restrictions are simply compounding their pain, after neighbouring Nigeria closed its border in August 2019 to crack down on smuggling. Benin’s government has now shut its four land borders in response to Covid-19 and while they remain open to commerce, traders say health checks have significantly slowed crossings.
Much of West Africa’s food trade is conducted by small-scale traders, and the vast majority of the commerce does not show up in official statistics. That informality makes it especially vulnerable to coronavirus restrictions, as the measures often consist of screening trucks crossing the border while movement of people is forbidden, stopping informal trade of small quantities.
However, certain corridors have been less affected. In Côte d’Ivoire, the busiest route from the West African coast to the interior, transporters have encountered fewer delays. And in recent weeks some governments have started to ease restrictions in an effort to reduce the economic toll, including reopening some markets and shortening curfews. But traders remain anxious as they settle in for what the World Health Organization says could be a prolonged outbreak on the continent.
West African traders losing 30% of produce to movement restrictions
Although governments across the region have said food items are among a list of essential items that can move freely, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Antoine Bouet, points out that most of the trade in the country is done informally and in small quantities (Sahara Reporters, 27 May; Reuters, 27 May). Thirty per cent of perishable produce and livestock traded in West Africa has been lost due to restrictions in movement caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to data collected by the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS). The disruption in the movement of fruits, food items and domestic animals for consumption is due to market closures and transport delays.
Bouet states that “Very often, these measures consist in the screening of trucks crossing the border while movement of people is forbidden. These measures stop informal trade of small quantities.” The Nigerian Government still maintains an inter-state ban, while land borders into the country have been partially closed since last August to check rice smuggling.
IFPRI daily food price monitor
IFPRI’s Food Security Portal has launched a Covid-19 Food Price Monitor for South Asia and Africa south of the Sahara. The Monitor allows users to track changes in food prices since the start of Covid-19 social distancing measures. Daily updates of prices in wholesale and retail markets are provided for a wide range of key food products.
The Covid-19 Food Price Monitor currently provides daily updates of food price movements in wholesale and retail markets in India, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. Resources and data permitting, it will seek to expand this coverage shortly, starting with additional countries in Africa.
It will raise red flags for wholesale and retail markets and food commodities showing high price increases. This way, the Monitor serves as a temperature check of how local market conditions for staple and non-staple foods have been changing since the outbreak of Covid-19 and the imposition of containment measures.
Monitoring food prices is particularly important during the Covid-19 crisis. Food prices strongly influence livelihoods and dietary choices made by farmers, traders, processors, and consumers. When markets are tight, prices are sensitive to shocks such as a bad harvest—or today, pandemic-related supply disruptions. For the poor who spend most of their income on food, any food price increase may put their food security at risk. Price spikes could point at supply disruptions and stock shortages. While the Monitor does not pinpoint such immediate causes, we hope it will alert policy makers to emerging problems in supply chains and the specific populations affected, helping to spur quicker responses to ensure people’s continuous access to food.
While some Burkinabé businesses are closing because of the Covid-19 crisis, others are benefiting. Online vegetable sales platform Zinbiss Yaar was receiving two orders a day before the the coronavirus outbreak, but now it receives up to seven or more orders a day on weekends. This young company is one of the few still making a profit despite the health crisis. The closure of markets, the quarantine of some towns and the curfew have increased the popularity of online shopping with delivery. The developer of Zinbiss Yaar, Mireille Bakouan, is interviewed by Studio Yafa (28 May).
The Coconut Revitalization Programme under the supervision of the Ghana Export Promotion Authority (GEPA) has just launched the distribution of more than 26,000 coconut plants to fruit growers in the Volta region of Ghana (Commodafrica, 27 May). This programme aims to promote the domestic consumption and export of coconuts.
In Kenya, Covid-19 is accelerating the digital transformation of African agricultural value chains. For example, plant and animal health specialists who can’t travel to farms to physically meet farmers are embracing digital agro-extension services, and farmers who can’t access inputs like seeds and fertilizer are turning to online platforms to buy them (Xinhua, 27 May). Digital solutions are also helping farmers to sell their products, with producers delivering food directly to consumers, and earning more, rather than going through brokers. At every stage of the agricultural value chain, software developers, farmers, transporters, agro-dealers and social entrepreneurs in Kenya and the rest of Africa have found digital solutions to perform various tasks and solve arising problems. Joseph Macharia, a social entrepreneur behind Mkulima Young, a popular online marketplace, says that the number of farmers, agro-dealers, trainers and buyers both in Kenya and across Africa using the platform has grown fourfold in the past two months.
Traders at the Jubilee market in Kisumu, Kenya have made massive losses following transport delays at the Kenya–Uganda border due to stringent Covid-19 guidelines (Standard, 27 May). The traders, who rely mostly on food and fruits imported from Uganda, have had to wait four days to get supplies of fruit and vegetables from the neighbouring country. Vendors say it is resulting in up to half of a consignment being lost, and price reductions on the remainder. One producer transporting good from Uganda to Kenya via Malaba said “When you go to Uganda you are asked to stay in the truck and it can take four days before you get to the other side.”
In Malawi, since the authorities declared a state of disaster in March, activities have slowed down leading to a decline in the country’s economic and social development, according to Phyness Thembulembu, Malawi Country Programmes Manager of the African Fertilizer and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP). Malawi has been affected by decisions to close the borders of neighbouring and more distant countries. As a landlocked country, it is dependent on imports of agricultural products and raw materials. The first consequences were a shortage of agricultural inputs and raw materials, increased prices of products and transport, and low demand for agricultural inputs due to buyers’ reduced incomes. The activity and performance of agricultural SMEs was greatly affected as the implementation of government measures to control the spread of the virus led to unforeseen additional costs. The marketing of agricultural production was affected by the uncertainty of maintaining sales contracts with foreign buyers, the reduction of stocks, and sales to intermediaries and brokers due to the closure of the market.
The authorities have announced the launch of a massive screening campaign for healthcare workers working in the province of Cabo Delgado, which has the country’s highest number of cases of coronavirus (RFI, 26 May).
To return Rwanda’s horticultural exports to normal, the volumes of weekly exports would have to rise from a current capacity of 30–35 tonnes to 80–100 tonnes according to the country’s Economic Recovery Plan Blueprint (New Times, 26 May). Among ongoing interventions is work with the national carrier RwandAir to deliver goods to some markets in Europe. The blueprint notes the need to secure more flights weekly to Europe at subsidised airfreight rates to allow exporters maintain volumes. Currently, the cost of airfreight has been said to be high by exporters, standing at $1.8/kg compared to $1.4/kg before the pandemic. Beyond working with RwandAir to reduce the cost of airfreight, Rwanda’s National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB) is also engaging them to open up more destinations where there is demand for fresh produce, such as Dubai, China and South Africa.
The government has announced the gradual reopening of primary schools and universities (with only one-third of students) from 1 June. This raises some concerns because, according to South African doctors and scientists, the country has still not reached the peak of the epidemic (RFI, 26 May).
The closure of the border between Tanzania and Kenya has hit Dar’s horticulture sector due to long delays at the crossing for fresh produce truckers, risking a disruption of the supply chain (The East African, 27 May). Tanzania Horticulture Association (Taha) Chief Executive Jacqueline Mkindi has asked the governments of Tanzania and Kenya to resolve the border issue for the sake of the already struggling export industry. Most of Tanzania’s horticulture produce is exported through Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). “If this tug of war continues, we’ll be the first to suffer as we still rely on JKIA and the port in Mombasa to export crops whose routes are not open from Tanzania,” Dr Mkindi said. “Our government has all along been considerate to horticulture. We advise it to embark on economic negotiations with Kenya to allow cargo to continue crossing borders smoothly.” After the halt of international aviation, Taha signed a deal with Ethiopian Airlines to ferry fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers to global markets from Kilimanjaro International Airport, but the airline has still not been granted long-term landing permits. “Unless the government resolves the hiccups, the future of the deal with the Ethiopian Airlines is hanging in the balance,” said Dr Mkindi, as she asked the government to consider issuing between three to six-month landing warrants for cargo flights to ease their operations. Currently, Taha has to apply for a landing warrant for every incoming flight at routine airport charges and has to attach backup documents each time.
The authorities announced on 26 May that restrictions had been eased in 95 of Uganda’s 135 districts. Private cars are allowed to circulate again and shops and restaurants are allowed to reopen. However, masks must be worn in public areas. Public transport will resume on 4 June (RFI, 26 May).
FreshTrade Caribbean, a virtual marketplace for buying and selling local fruits and vegetables, has just been launched (St Lucia Star, 27 May). This local startup company aims to support local producers and vendors by helping them connect with new customers by bringing buyers and sellers together through a free and easy-to-use digital marketplace. According to a recent CARICOM report, 60–80% of all food consumed in the Caribbean is imported, and in St Lucia the figure is even higher. An estimated 45% of all fruit and vegetables are thrown each every year because many farmers have difficulty finding buyers for their products before they spoil. And 50 cents of every 1 dollar earned by a farmer goes towards paying multiple middlemen – traders, wholesalers, transporters and retailers. In the Covid-19 context, this digital capacity may prove to be invaluable.