“The future of the region depends first and foremost on producing what we eat,” says Ollo Sib, World Food Programme (WFP) analyst for West and Central Africa.
Sib is talking about food security across the continent. Already complex, the situation has become critical following both the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has disrupted grain markets, access to fertilisers, and fuelled widespread inflation.
As a result, “acute food insecurity is about to reach its highest level in 10 years in West Africa,” warned the WFP in April. Although the cultivation of rice, which is widely consumed in the region and still often imported from Asia, has risen sharply, particularly in Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, and Senegal, this is not enough to solve the problem.
Some are calling for an emphasis on local cereals, including millet. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared 2023 the international year of “sustainable” foodstuff.
Others, however, are calling for a boost in the production of fruits, vegetables and legumes (including beans such as cowpeas) to feed urban centres. Some are betting on niche markets for export, such as organic pineapple and fonio (an ancient grain found in West Africa).
So, which sectors have the greatest potential to combine profitability and food security?
1. Chicken: Key protein
Burkina Faso and Senegal, followed by Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria, have all developed poultry farming, as demonstrated by the success of Sédima in Senegal and Sipra in Côte d’Ivoire.
Already booming, the sector is seeing a steady increase in chicken (and egg) consumption, driven by population growth and urban expansion. At the same time, the creation of the poultry industry has led to the emergence of upstream (poultry feed, hatching) to downstream (slaughterhouse, wholesale and retail, catering) industries.
But this virtuous circle only works if the arrival of competitively priced frozen chicken cuts (two to four times cheaper than local meat) from South America, mainly Brazil and Argentina, is stopped. Senegal, a model in the region, has been banning imports since 2005. As a result, many players are calling for protectionist measures to be taken at the level of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
2. Maize: A success story worth exploiting
This is the cereal with the wind in its sails. “In the 2020-2021 season, sub-Saharan Africa produced 90m tonnes of maize, compared with just three million tn imported,” says Pierre Ricau, market analyst at Nitidæ, a French association specialising in the development of agri-food sectors in Africa.
While Nigeria is the continent’s second-largest producer behind South Africa (12.7 million and 15.6 million tn respectively in 2022-2023), Mali (3.7 million tn, over the same period), Burkina Faso (two million), and Côte d’Ivoire (1.2 million) constitute a solid production pool, with harvests in Bamako and Abidjan having doubled compared to 2014-2015, according to the US Department of Agriculture data.
A mainstay of the human diet, maize is also widely used to feed animals.
“We have seen year-long flows between Burkina Faso and Mali, where there is only one harvest, and Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, where there are two,” says Ricau. “This is the culture of sub-regional integration.”
A mainstay of the human diet (in the form of porridge, paste, fritters, flour, etc.), maize is also widely used to feed animals (poultry and cattle).
Poultry farmers such as Sédima in Senegal and Sipra (via Ivograin) and Foani Services in Côte d’Ivoire, as well as millers, are banking on a boom in the market, linked to the livestock boom. Not to mention the growing interest of the drinks industry, including Castel, in maize by-products such as grits, which are used to make beer and other alcoholic beverages.
3. Cassava: An industrial boulevard
More so than yams and sweet potatoes, cassava is emerging as the tuber of the future. Nigeria, the world’s leading producer (nearly 60 million tn in 2018, or 21% of the total), is the West African powerhouse. “The country has set an example by promoting consumption, encouraging higher productivity, and developing supply systems,” noted Ibrahima Hathie, a researcher at the Initiative prospective agricole et rural (Ipar).
But Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are also betting on this crop. Cassava’s strength lies in the many ways in which it can be transformed. While flour, gari and attiéké, the emblems of Côte d’Ivoire, are well established, other variations are set to gain ground, notably cassava starch, a substitute for maize starch, which can be used in a number of food products.
Nestlé has used it in its bouillon cubes and Heineken in some of its beers, with flour and starch projects in the pipeline in Côte d’Ivoire. In the longer term, the tuber, whose leaves are rich in protein, could also be used as a biofuel.
4. Palm: The potential of oil
After wheat and rice, oil is one of the main imported products in West Africa. Only Côte d’Ivoire, a regional champion via the SIFCA group and the continent’s second-largest producer after Nigeria, exports oil. But the region has the climate and the species (the oil palm endemic to the Gulf of Guinea) to develop local production (600,000tn a year in Côte d’Ivoire, 1.4 million in Nigeria, according to the USDA).
Paradoxically, the soaring price of vegetable oils [the dedicated FAO index reached an all-time high in April 2022] has increased the number of imports, putting a strain on public accounts.
In the first quarter of 2022 alone, the trade deficit of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) worsened by CFAF186.5bn (€280m) compared with the same period in 2021, due to a 21% increase in the value of imports. This increase can be explained by the soaring prices of imported food products (+35% year-on-year), including edible oils (+62.5%) ahead of wheat (+49.5%) and rice (+26.1%), according to the Banque Centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO).
Continued high global prices and the outlook for growth in consumption – expected to double between 2017 and 2030 according to USDA figures – are bolstering the investments of existing players such as SIFCA (via its subsidiary Palmci), Socfin, Dekel Agri-Vision, Olam, and Wilmar while encouraging the arrival of new entrants.
In addition to oil, palm trees, whose development must be reconciled with the fight against deforestation, can be used to produce fats (for mayonnaise or spreads, for example), animal feed and cosmetics.
5. Soy: From export to local use
It’s a recent success story. In just a few years, Togo and Benin have seen their soy production soar from 44,000tn and 22,000tn respectively in the 2018-2019 season to around 250,000tn each in 2020-2021, some of which will be grown organically. This is a significant double performance when you consider that the other regional producer, Nigeria, has an annual harvest of two million tonnes.
To achieve this, a number of measures have been taken, including the creation of an inter-professional body, the setting of a purchase price by the State (CFAF300 in Togo; CFAF270 for conventional, and CFAF320 for organic products in Benin by 2022-2023) and the introduction of contracts between producers and processors. Not to mention public-private investment in industrial platforms developed by Arise IIP, owned by Gagan Gupta.
Although almost all the production is currently exported – to Asia and also to Europe, which is keen on organic soy – the idea is to develop it in the short-term local processing of oil and meal, in particular.
Ricau advises: “It is in the triple niche of maize, soya and chicken, where West African production is competitive, that we need to build a common agricultural policy (CAP) for ECOWAS.”
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