The rapidly evolving food situation, prices, and markets
The increasing food deficit and demand from neighboring countries, such as Nigeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso, have put enormous pressures on the local and regional food markets. The West Africa subregion gross deficit in cereals was estimated at 9.5 million tons, including nearly four million for Nigeria alone (Figure 1). The Government of Benin has confronted the current food crisis by taking essentially short-term measures, ranging from banning cereal exports to neighboring countries, imposing export tariffs, and procuring subsidized inputs to the farming population. However, these measures quickly revealed their limits as the Government was overwhelmed by the persistent inflation, rapidly increasing prices of imported inputs and consumer goods (brought about by the Russia-Ukraine war), and the export tariffs set up did not reduce the regional outflows of cereals. Benin has generated little food production surplus over the past few years. The regional food deficit is going to persist in the foreseeable future, further increasing pressures on food prices on the local and regional markets. Hence, this could be a golden opportunity that Benin can seize by producing more food crops and expanding food trade with countries that have significant food deficits in the subregion.
Figure 1 - Expected gross cereal deficit in the West Africa Subregion
Indeed, Benin’s farmers have gone their way to seize local and regional market opportunities by increasing their production (Figure 2). However, farmers’ response has been weakened by inconsistency in trade policy, and, hence, has not involved significant level of intensification to enable them to take a full advantage of the current regional market opportunity brought about the persistent food crisis in the West Africa subregion.
Figure 2 - Areas cultivated, production, and average yields of major cereals in Benin
Taking advantage of increasing regional market opportunities for food crops: the way forward
- Improve access to high yielding seeds
Benin’s seed system is characterized by several weaknesses, such as poor coordination, lack of understanding of regulations and therefore little compliance with the norms, weak estimation of seed demand, quality control, and capacity. Most farmers do not have access to high-yielding varieties and certified seed to enable widespread yield increases. According to the agriculture sector performance report, in 2020, for example, only 4.7 % of certified seed demand was met for maize, 22.2 % for rice, and 6.8 % for soybean.
The recent adoption of the seed sector development strategy (2022-2026) is a good step for the development of a vibrant seed industry in the country. The seed subsector can contribute significantly to the competitiveness and development of cereal value chains if the following key challenges are addressed in a timely manner, including strengthening the human and infrastructure capacity of public and private entities, diversifying seed production, improving communication and knowledge sharing on seed regulations and norms, and strengthening the seed research system (including the development of hybrid seeds), establishing business links between producers and seed companies, and opening up the seed sector to regional players who have a demonstrated capacity to supply the country with high quality seeds within the framework of ECOWAS harmonized seed regulations. A wealth of lessons and good practices can be drawn from the Bank-funded West African Agricultural Productivity Program (WAAPP), which has helped develop several varieties ready to be promoted at regional level.
- Increase access to chemical inputs, especially fertilizer at affordable price
Following the Ukraine-Russia war, a regional response to soaring fertilizer prices and unavailability is essential to meeting fertilizer needs of individual countries in the West Africa subregion in the medium and long terms. Benin imports the bulk of its fertilizer from Russia, a country affected by war and trade sanctions. Fertilizer prices are expected to further increase in the near future. Benin government had already announced that it will not be able to sustain fertilizer subsidies because of limited fiscal space.
Scaling up fertilizer manufacturing in the West Africa subregion is key for the transformation of African Agriculture. Establishing fertilizer manufacturing is a costly investment that is hard to justify in any single country if fertilizer resources are abundant but overall demand is low and vice versa. Nigeria has been able to overcome the investment cost challenge as it has recently inaugurated its mega fertilizer plant amid the fallout of the Russia-Ukraine war. The proximity of the new fertilizer plant offers a critical window of opportunity for Benin policymakers and private sector to engage their Nigerian counterparts within the frameworks of the Economic Community of African States (ECOWAS), the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and other bilateral agreements to source fertilizer inputs for its farming population to increase food production and meet increasing regional demand for food products, and turn away from trade restrictions, which send the wrong incentives to producers.
- Foster the wide-spread use of mechanization in agriculture
The current demand for mechanization services in Benin is not met. FAO estimates that 9,159 tractors are needed to meet man-power demand in the agriculture sector in Benin. Efforts are being made by the Government to supply tractors to the farming population, but more needs to be done to promote sustainable and large-scale private sector investments into mechanization, including leaving the importation and supply of agricultural machines in the hand of the private sector, designing a viable business model for agricultural mechanization service provision, and encouraging private sector investments into mechanization. Efforts to promote mechanization should also address the challenges of ensuring proper training for tractor operators, the continuous availability of affordable spare parts, and better repair skills and mechanics in the country.
- Support small and medium-scale irrigation
Irrigation is essential for future food production because of climate change and associated variability in water availability. Irrigation directly contributes to increased yields, while also facilitating the adoption of other productivity-enhancing inputs, such as improved seeds, adequate fertilizer, and the use of superior crop husbandry practices. Benin’s irrigation potential is estimated at 375,000 ha. Only 6.4 % (24, 181 ha) of these lands were irrigated in the past. Current efforts focus on the development of 50,000 ha of irrigated lands. To increase the production of rice significantly and sustainably, it is essential to promote irrigation where there is a demonstrated potential by facilitating the supply of small to medium size modern irrigation technologies through the private sector, and knowledge sharing through extension and field demonstrations to the farming population. Improved irrigation technologies are readily available in the subregion and just need to be deployed in the country.