Building capacity to help Africa trade better

The face of African agriculture trade


The face of African agriculture trade

Willemien Viljoen, tralac Researcher, comments on Africa’s recent agricultural trade performance

In a recent article the Secretary General of the Ports Management Association of Eastern and Southern Africa (Pmaesa), Nosipho Mdawe, asked a pertinent question: ‘why have agricultural exports died in Africa?’ This question has far reaching implications for sustainable development, inclusive growth, poverty alleviation, industrial development and food security for the African continent. According to the Secretary General, Africa has ‘the potential not only to feed ourselves on this continent but to export to the world’; however, currently Africa’s agricultural imports far outweigh exports to the rest of the world. The trade data shows that African countries have been net food importers over the last 15 years. Since 2001 Africa’s agricultural imports account for around 60 percent of Africa’s total trade in agricultural products. Over the last 15 years Africa’s agricultural imports increased from US$ 17 billion in 2001 to US$ 61 billion at the end of 2016. On average, agricultural product imports account for 13.4 percent of the total products imported by African countries over the last 15 years, while agricultural exports account for 9.16 percent of total African exports over the same time.

Figure 1: Africa’s agricultural trade deficit; US$ million (2001-2016)

Africa agriculture trade deficit Viljoen May 2017

So what did African countries import over the last 15 years?

  • Between 2001 and 2016 agricultural imports increased by 9 percent. The growth in imports can mainly be attributed to an increase in the demand for cereals, animal and vegetable fats and oils, sugar and confectionery and meat and edible offal. These products are mainly imported from Brazil, France and Argentina.

  • All agricultural product imports have shown various levels of growth, ranging from 3 percent for D-glucitol to a 15 percent increase in the importation of meat and edible offal products. The only two products for which imports decreased were finishing agents (decline of 3%) and vegetable plaiting materials (decline of 3%).

  • There has been only a slight change in the composition of agricultural imports by African countries. In 2001 the main import products were cereals (35%), animal and vegetable fats and oils (9%), sugars and confectionary (9%) and dairy products (5%). In 2016 the main import products were cereals (28%), animal and vegetable fats and oils (11%), sugars and confectionary (9%) and meat and edible offal (6%).

  • There has been an interesting change in the ranking of the top five agricultural importing countries. In 2001 the main importing countries were Egypt (19% of total African agricultural imports), Algeria (15%), Morocco (9%), Nigeria (8%) and South Africa (6%). In 2016 Egypt (17%) and Algeria (12%) were still the two main importing countries but South Africa became the third largest African agricultural importer, importing 10 percent of total African agricultural products for the year.

  • In 2016 the main importers of cereals were Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa. These products were mainly wheat and meslin and maize and corn imported from Brazil, Argentina, France, Canada, Ukraine and Russia and rice imported from Thailand and India.

It is interesting to note that African countries import numerous agricultural products which are also produced on the African continent. More concerning is that many products being imported are products which are highly protected in African countries; deemed sensitive products (like wheat, maize and sugar) of vital importance for economic inclusive growth and development. The high incidence of imports for these products has been attributed to the inability to produce enough to satisfy growing local demand due to low yields and relatively low levels of productivity. Furthermore, over 80 percent of Africa’s agricultural products are being produced by smallholder farmers who produce 70 percent of the continent’s food supply. If we look at exports, African countries mainly export cocoa, edible fruit and nuts, coffee and tea and vegetables to the rest of the world. The main agricultural importing countries are the United States, China, Germany, Netherlands and the United Kingdom. African countries do not feature under the top supplying countries for any of these markets. If Africa is serious about changing from net food importers to net food exports it becomes a question of increasing Africa’s ability to do just that – addressing supply side constraints first; including innovation in production technology, the cost of inputs (energy and fertilizers), management of changes in climatic conditions (e.g. access to water through irrigation), knowledge transfer and capacity building, investment in agriculture and agriculture-related infrastructure (credit facilities, transportation networks, cold-storage facilities and communication networks) and access to information.



Freight and Trading Weekly

ITC TradeMap (www.trademap.org)

Mbabazi, J., Bah, M.E.M., and Verdier-Chouchane, A. 2015. Transforming Africa’s agriculture to improve competitiveness. http://reports.weforum.org/africa-competitiveness-report-2015/chapter-2-1-transforming-africas-agriculture-to-improve-competitiveness/

Sunga, I. 2017. These 5 innovations will transform the lives of smallholder farmers. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/these-5-innovations-will-transform-the-lives-of-smallholder-farmers

World Economic Forum. 2017. The Africa competitiveness report 2017: addressing Africa’s demographic dividend. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_ACR_2017.pdf


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