West African countries have been working for many years to develop and implement harmonized trade rules for crop inputs. While much remains to be done, new regional regulations for seed and fertilizer are already helping to guide quality improvements in some countries. The West Africa Seed Committee is due to be launched next week in Abidjan thereby clearing the way for establishment of a regional variety catalog and seed certification system. Work to operationalize the regional rules for fertilizer also continues.
Despite these positive developments, most West African countries are a long way from having the required capacities and institutional structures needed to implement their own trade rules. The agreed regulations are modeled on advanced international standards, yet most national regulatory systems for crop inputs are greatly overstretched if they exist at all. As a result, it will likely be many more years before true harmonized regional trade can begin.
A new World Bank Group Africa Trade Working Paper looks at these challenges and shows that simple solutions including unilateral and joint action by small groups of countries should not be ruled out as a way to fast-track progress and support long-term harmonization.
Although West African countries have made good progress in developing trade rules that stand to increase farmer choice, bring prices down, and improve buyer confidence, harmonization is an inherently complex and time-consuming process.
The analysis thus points to a need for simple and pragmatic changes that can have impact now while other capacity upgrades and institutional reforms needed for harmonization to work continue.
Other key messages from the working paper include:
There are many good reasons for regional collaboration on seed and fertilizer. Soil types and rainfall patterns cut across West Africa mainly in east-to-west bands, meaning that neighboring countries are often the nearest source of supply and/or the best market outlet for adapted seeds and appropriate fertilizer types.
In major achievements of regional cooperation, new regional regulations are now in place. In 2008, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) enacted a Regional Regulation for seed trade that member states are working to make operational in partnership with the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) and Permanent Interstates Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILLS). In 2012, ECOWAS enacted a similar Regional Regulation for fertilizer that members are working to make operational in partnership with UEMOA.
Both sets of trade rules require countries to develop systems based on international best practice. The agreed regulations are highly effective as quality control instruments, but are technically demanding and require specialist skills, advanced equipment, and other resources to implement that are generally lacking in West Africa.
Despite many obstacles, the regulations are already making a difference to quality. Although many hurdles remain, some countries have already begun to implement new systems that are benefiting farmers even now. In Burkina Faso, Mali, and Nigeria, seed inspectors are carrying out at least some certification visits using newly developed manuals that follow the ECOWAS guidelines.
Use of risk-based approaches would complement long-term harmonization and could improve farmer choice and input quality almost immediately. Without waiting for fully harmonized systems to be in place, any country could make a unilateral decision to accept proven varieties of seed from neighboring countries whenever it wants. Use of less stringent certification standards such as the FAO’s rules for Quality Declared Seed that are easier to apply than the ECOWAS standards is another practical option. Countries could also agree to accept fertilizer from reputable manufacturers and transporters without insisting on full inspection of every consignment at the border.
Success requires elimination of longstanding business constraints. West Africa continues to be overwhelmingly dependent on public research for new types of seed, with some countries imposing outright bans on private variety ownership and maintenance. The 2008 ECOWAS Regulation provides space for private variety maintenance and one immediate way to improve farm level choice and quality would simply be to allow qualified firms to retain full control and long-term ownership of their own technology.
Private competition in fertilizer supply is also under threat. On the fertilizer side, proposals for centrally managed regional procurement likewise threaten currently growing regional production and trade. Such a system would directly undermine the competitive mechanisms the ECOWAS regulations seek to create and that are already starting to emerge in some countries as a route to lower prices.
Ultimately, implementation of harmonized trade rules is not the goal itself. These rules are merely a way to achieve the much more important objective of improving farmer access to quality inputs through sustainable market-driven channels. Achieving that aim requires a combination of strategies together with ongoing dialogue between those with a shared desire to promote inclusive agriculture growth and market integration in West Africa.