“Food systems in West Africa are resilient, but also vulnerable”

Published on
April 12, 2021

Together with his colleagues, researcher Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters of Wageningen Economic Research examined the resilience of food systems in West Africa. The knowledge they gained and consultations with the World Bank have resulted in a programme to further increase this resilience. However, greater knowledge is required. What can we learn from his findings?

Is it possible to conduct research in West Africa during the coronavirus pandemic?

To a certain extent it can be done from the Netherlands, but inevitably you will come across obstacles. In the study, we mainly looked at what is already known about food systems and their resilience. But there are still a lot of unknowns, and you cannot speak for people in a region if you have not consulted them.

What motivated the research?

The World Bank was already working on the resilience of food systems in West Africa, but this was mainly related to climate change. And then COVID-19 happened in March 2020. No one knew what was happening in West Africa at the time. Would systems collapse? Would millions of people die? There are no national surveys in these countries and there was a lot of confusion, a lot of assumptions, and unfounded opinions. This prompted the research.

What did you look at?

The main question is how to understand the resilience of food systems in West Africa. What can be used as key points for the programme? Our specific research question was what is known about these food systems and their resilience. What do experts say? What about the literature? At Wageningen we provided evidence and the World Bank conducted the consultations: what are countries willing and able to do? The two were brought together and this led to the World Bank programme.

What do we know about food systems?

There are very different food systems in West Africa, just like in Europe. It is like comparing Iceland to Spain. In our research, we looked at five major food systems. They range from pastoralism, nomads traveling around, to fishermen along the coast. How do the systems work? How are they developed? What do they produce and what is the economic value? Where are the vulnerabilities? What kind of disruptions can the systems withstand?

What have you discovered?

The food systems are much more resilient than we assumed when panic about the coronavirus outbreak struck. For example, the pastoral system is resilient because it is mobile. People move to another area if there is insufficient rainfall. In essence, this is a form of resilience: moving away from a disruption. Fishermen are also resilient because they can go anywhere. However, European fishermen entering the same area makes this more difficult. The system can cope with one shock, but if there is another shock, whether it’s economic or political, it will be more difficult.

Can COVID-19 be considered a second shock?

Many land borders were closed because of COVID-19 and that was a problem. Something that is essentially resilient then becomes less resilient because of the policies of national governments. Each system has its own strength and you have to limit external disruptions so that something that is intrinsically strong is not weakened from the outside. Regional collaboration improves resilience.

Regional thinking strengthens food systems?

Of course. Walls need to be taken down and people have to think outside the box. Flexibility, dynamism, and connectivity can strengthen food systems. This can be done through policy, if countries are willing to adopt them. ECOWAS, as a kind of European Union, can promote collaboration among West African countries. Countries must then understand that this serves national interests and does not close their borders. Nationalism is economically speaking not smart. Domestic consumer markets are relatively small, but large enough regionally to provide benefits.

Are people resilient within the food systems?

Within the food systems we see big differences between people, and these contrasts are increasing. Social inequality between men and women — rich and poor — determines the resilience of individuals. Large groups of people are still vulnerable despite a strong food system. What does it show us if a system is resilient and yet there is 40% malnutrition? In all West African countries, agriculture and fisheries are the main economic activities from which many people have to make a living. Agriculture alone is not sufficient to help all those people out of poverty. About 80 % can just about feed themselves but do not make a living out of it.

Where do people earn their income?

Men go to work as contract labourers, young people go to work in mines, and women take up trade. Young people, in particular, do not have enough work. A different economy is needed to offer them prospects. This many people mainly living off primary production causes a strain on resilience. The limits have been reached and there are no reserves in the households. People depend on income from mines or money from abroad to keep them going. These are coping mechanisms. The income from primary agricultural production is so meagre that households are not resilient.

What can West African countries do?

Produce more food and better food. Don't fixate on calories alone: focus on a healthy diet. Now it mainly consists of grains and a little livestock, but other crops provide a complete diet. There is also a demand for this. In this process of intensification and increased production, a large number of people may seek a source of income in production packaging, storage, and processing. It calls for policy, a change in funding, stimulation of distributors, and more industry.

Will this actually happen?

That remains to be seen. Why are systems not the way we want them to be? We find that the governance behind food systems determines what a system looks like. Large companies, consumers: it is the relationship between the various actors that determines what the system looks like. The balance of power sometimes shifts to the left, sometimes to the right. Food systems are the results of the forces that lie beneath them. This interplay is what is known as governance.

What do we know about governance in West Africa?

We actually understand very little of that interplay. Who has interests? Who needs to be pushed? Is it a matter of legislation, influence, bribery? We do not know about governance in West Africa. We know how we want the food system to be, but how to achieve that is the big question. We should look at the sociopolitical forces to change a system. That is a huge challenge that I am happy to take on, as soon as we can travel again and online meetings are no longer necessary for everything.

Download the research report