How can Africa’s agriculture boost development through trade?

Anforme Limited, February 22, 2011

Why has Africa become a net food importer? This was the question raised by Pascal Lamy, director general of the World Trade Organisation, at a conference entitled “Harnessing Agriculture for Development through Trade” yesterday. This conference was based on a publication produced by the CUTS International resource centre.

Lamy pointed out that Africa became a net-food importer in the 1980s, when the prices of its key commodity exports tumbled and its agriculture slowed down. It now has a food trade deficit of around $20 billion.

The main goal to be addressed he suggested, was not the question about self-sufficiency, but how African agriculture can become more efficient and competitive. He noted that the CUTS publication shows that African agriculture has been shackled by, firstly, colonial patterns of trade that have locked Africa into commodity exports. And, secondly, macroeconomic and trade policies aimed at import-substitution and food self-sufficiency, which have achieved the exact opposite of their goal. In taxing agriculture, and shielding it from international competition, these policies have made African agriculture less competitive.

He noted that stagnant agriculture, combined with a population growth rate in the continent that is higher than the world average, is obviously leading to food insecurity. In Gabon, for example, food expenditure accounts for about 50% of total expenditure.

He added that contrary to what some have been saying about international trade somehow being responsible for the plight of African agriculture, it is import-substitution policies and lack of investment in agriculture which are the principal culprits.

In his view, it is the Doha trade round which can made a ‘modest’ contribution to helping lift Africa’s agriculture. This is because it will give least-developed countries duty-free, quota-free, access to export markets. It will deal with the colonial patterns of trade by reducing the phenomenon of tariff escalation. It will also reduce the subsidies of the rich world that have made it difficult for Africa to compete on international markets, and flooded African markets with cheap imports.

Whilst the world needs cheaper food, it needs that food be produced under conditions of fair competition. In short, he argues, the Doha Round will help level the playing field for Africa.

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