There are unprecedented opportunities for agricultural growth in West Africa, according to a major new report, which highlights some of the challenges ahead to make the most of the growing demand for animal protein foods such as poultry and red meat.

Leading among the requirements needed to make the most of this growth potential is more effective regional integration, according to the new report, Agricultural Growth in West Africa: Market and Policy Drivers published jointly by the African Development Bank (AfDB), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

West Africa is generally defined as comprising 18 countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Saint Helena, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sao Tome and Principe, and Togo.

According to the FAO, to be competitive on a global stage, West African agriculture needs to capture some of the economies of scale that those countries enjoy in the markets for fertilizers and seeds as well as in agricultural research and technology development.

Opportunities for African meat and poultry producers

Timing of this report is opportune; the population of West Africa currently stands at 300 million and it is expected to grow to 490 million by 2030. This is already the most urbanized part of Sub-Saharan Africa, with almost half the population living in towns and cities and the urban population is forecast to grow at 3.8 percent annually to 2030.

At the same time, the middle class is expanding, leading to greater diversity in consumer food demands, with convenience, nutritional quality, food safety and presentation gaining importance alongside affordability.

According to the report, there is also an attraction to modern or Western lifestyles, with young urban middle class and aspiring consumers choosing branded packaged food products and Western-style quick-service restaurants offering fried chicken, French fries and burgers. The sizeable advertising budgets of large food manufacturers and fast-food chains reinforce these trends and place smaller domestic producers at a disadvantage.

However, the growing demand also provides great opportunities for value addition, job creation, economic integration and diversification and import substitution, says the report.

Raising productivity and efficiency throughout the agri-food system will allow food to remain affordable for those who spend a large share of their incomes on food while also enhancing producers' incomes is through.

The report highlights that West Africa’s agricultural production performance over the past 30 years has been mixed. Production of basic food staples has shown the highest increase per capita but some crop and livestock products with the most dynamic markets, such as meat and dairy products, were unable to meet increasing demand. Of the animal proteins, pig meat showed the highest annual average growth rates per capita, at 2 percent, followed by sheep and goat meat, averaging 1.6 per cent, while beef and milk production declined on a per-capita basis.

Productivity growth inconsistent

Productivity growth, meanwhile, has been low and inconsistent. Agricultural growth in the region has been driven largely by area expansion, whereas land and labor productivity increases have been modest, with yields remaining well below global benchmarks.

The area planted to cereals increased by 3.9 percent a year while yields increased by less than 1.0 percent annually between 1980 and 2009. With the exception of corn, for which average yields grew annually by 2.2 percent between 1980 and 2009, yields of other food crops increased only modestly or even stagnated.

According to the report, performance by the cattle and poultry sectors have been even worse over this period, with the poultry and dairy sectors stagnating, while average production per animal has declined for beef at a rate of 0.9 per cent annually.

Report calls for more stable policies

For this to be achieved, the report’s authors highlight the needs for a more stable and predictable policy environment, refocusing of public investments on the critical building blocks for sustainable long-term growth, and stepping up implementation capacity.

The report stresses that more attention needs to be placed on the downstream segment of the agri-food system: assembly, storage, processing, wholesaling and retail.

While the right policy will depend on the local conditions, policy should prioritize small and medium enterprises in food processing, the authors recommend, along with strengthening the linkages between market-oriented family farms and their organizations with agribusiness of all sizes to enhance access to markets, inputs and support services.

Special attention should be placed in supporting women and young entrepreneurs.

As the post-harvest segments of the agri-food system grow more important, so too will become integrated links between agriculture, research, transport, education and trade policy, and the report expands in these connections.

Improving the mix of public investments in agriculture in the region is as important as increasing their level, the report concludes. The authors call on governments to shift spending towards public goods such as roads, reliable electricity supply, research and schooling rather than subsidizing private goods such as fertilizer and tractors.