Author: Loïc Bisson, Thea Hambleton
Affiliated organization: Clingendael – Netherlands Institute of International Relations
Type of publication: Policy Brief
Date of publication: June 2020
In West Africa, countries have enacted a mix of social distancing and movement restrictions measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. Depending on the country, they have suspended international flights, closed borders, imposed curfews, locked down localities, limited internal movement and closed schools, markets and nonessential businesses. West Africa was quick to act and most mitigation measures were taken as early as March 2020, often before the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported in countries. Thus, we can already identify some of the impacts of mitigation measures on value chains.
To date, the emerging crisis has been viewed primarily through a public health lens and only gradually are policymakers focusing attention on the emerging spillover economic and food security impacts. In West Africa, the loss of work could negatively affect the economy and livelihoods rapidly, given that most jobs in the region are in the informal sector (80 percent on average).
The informal economy is by nature heavily reliant on faceto-face exchanges, and informal workers are generally more vulnerable to COVID-19. The ability to work from home and maintain an income is very rare. The impact of COVID-19 on value chains, and by extension livelihoods, is immediately clear. Those who are ill will be unable to work, and those who are not ill may be restricted from working due to prevention and mitigation measures.
There are signs of the negative impact of COVID-19 on the agricultural value chain, including difficulties in moving food from rural to urban areas, closed markets, rising food prices, loss of livelihoods and increased reliance on social safety nets.
Because agriculture represents almost half of all jobs in West Africa, we here focus predominantly on cereal, pastoral, cacao and cashew nuts value chains. Overall, countries in which the food value chain was already fragile are facing further deteriorations (supply chain disruptions and price increases) as a result of COVID-19.3 In countries like Gambia, Liberia, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone, nonseasonal price increases of 10 to 20 percent have already been recorded in monthly variations for food products. In some countries, these problems add to ongoing problems of conflict and political instability. In many countries, COVID-19 will challenge structurally weak value chains.
Current impact of COVID-19
Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest urbanizing region in the world. Close physical contact facilitates the rapid spread of COVID-19. High population density greatly increases the frequency of contact, and urban settings are generally more vulnerable than rural areas. But while the vulnerability of urban areas to the disease is critical in the short term, the medium- to long-term impact on rural areas due to mitigation measures and the slowdown of economic activities should not be overlooked. As such, the best lens through which to measure the impact of COVID-19 in West Africa is by sector, encompassing both urban and rural populations as part of broader value chains. In West Africa, 70 percent of the workforce are employed in three sectors: agriculture (40 percent), wholesale and retail trade (20 percent), and manufacturing (9 percent). These sectors have a high proportion of vulnerable populations such as women, unprotected workers, daily wage workers and migrant workers.
In terms of impact on operations, one must identify physical markets as crucial bottlenecks for both agriculture and retail/trade, the two main sectors of employment in West Africa. In West Africa, markets are well integrated due to historical trade habits, advanced political and economic integration and improved infrastructure. Despite ongoing conflicts in Northern Nigeria, the Lake Chad region and Liptako-Gourma, commodities normally move from rural production zones to the often-urban consumption zones with no major challenges. But because of COVID-19, most countries in West Africa have closed markets in line with prohibitions on assembly of persons. Although no country closed more than 50 percent of its markets, closures were often localised and some regions closed from 60 up to 100 percent of their markets (e.g. Burkina Faso, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Chad). In Burkina Faso’s capital, all 40 markets were closed in March, before the government eventually reopened some end-of-April after violent clashes between police and traders.
COVID-19 mitigation measures could disrupt agricultural production. With market closures and drop in transport supply to/from markets in many countries in the regions, farmers will not have access to buy good quality seeds, tools and agricultural inputs (e.g., pesticides, fertilizers). In the Sahel, the planting period starts in May/June for the main agricultural season, and access to such products is key. Border closures and in-country movement restrictions could also disrupt seasonal migration and agriculture production. In West Africa, most seasonal workers alternate between farming in rural areas and nonagricultural work in urban areas, often across national borders. In the Sahel, peak labour demand for nonagricultural work has ended (March) and workers should migrate back to their land for the farming season (starting mid-June). Border closure could prevent seasonal workers from migrating home to farm. Internal movement restrictions, lockdowns and curfews might also limit access to land to cultivate. This comes at the worst possible moment as in both the Sahel and coastal states, the peak in labour for agricultural work (weeding and harvesting) starts now (respectively, mid-June and May).
In West Africa, 70 percent of the workforce are employed in three sectors: agriculture (40 percent), wholesale and retail trade (20 percent), and manufacturing (9 percent). These sectors have a high proportion of vulnerable populations such as women, unprotected workers, daily wage workers and migrant workers
COVID-19 mitigation measures could also disrupt food distribution. In coastal states, the 2020 off-season harvests should be reaching markets and providing substantial incomes to farmers. However, market closure, limited transport options and restrictions on internal and cross-borders movement limit markets access (especially markets at borders). Important waste and loss of revenue is already being reported. Consequently, farmers’ incomes are shrinking and purchasing power decreasing. The region is also highly dependent on food imports like rice. Overall, West Africa must import 9.9 million metric tons of rice to meet domestic demand – generally coming from Vietnam, China and India. Asia is heavily affected by COVID-19 and slow maritime transport due to health inspections in ports and cumbersome sanitary procedures like the disinfection of vessels is already creating hiccup in the supply chain.
According to the World Food Program’s corporate impact risk analysis exercises, West Africa is especially vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain because of the reliance on food being imported into various landlocked countries through a few ports (Douala in Cameroon, Lomé in Togo, Cotonou in Benin, Dakar in Senegal, Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire). In general, West African countries have an average of 3 months of stock reserve for staple cereals held at national levels, which may be insufficient if current mitigation measures and additional reactionary measures by exporting countries increase.
Pastoralism in the region heavily relies on transhumance, a system by which pastoralists and their livestock operate regular seasonal movements between complementary ecological zones following a north-south axis. It generally takes place during the dry season from January to May, and pastoralists should be heading back from the coastal states to the Sahel mid-May. Transhumance is necessary to the survival of the livestock and pastoralists’ livelihoods. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates around two million cattle are moved across borders each year
Prior to COVID-19, pastoralism was already under pressure by conflict in West Africa. It is the main economic activity in two of the world’s predominant clusters of conflict, the Liptako-Gourma and the Lake Chad basin. Many grazing areas or livestock markets are made inaccessible by conflict. Market closure, border closure and movement restrictions made a bad situation worse, and have put additional pressure on pastoralists in the region, disrupting the entire pastoral value chain. Current COVID-19 mitigation measures limit both internal and cross-border transhumant pastoralism. There has been a considerable drop in cross-border flows of animals as well as the number of animals in livestock markets. The Comité Permanent Inter-Etats de Lutte contre la Sécheresse dans le Sahel (CILSS) reports some transhumant pastoralists are stuck in host countries (Togo, Benin) and cannot travel back to the Sahel. Pastoralists are allowed to travel only short distances, but even internal movements are limited and some can no longer exit their home regions.
The concentration of livestock in certain areas is causing overgrazing and puts unprecedented pressure on the limited available resources (grazing areas, water). It also limits access to veterinary care and leads to increased zoo-sanitary diseases. CILSS reports the situation is especially critical in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Nigeria and Senegal.
The pressure on pastures has led to difficulties in feeding animals, resulting in weight loss, slimming of livestock and high animal mortality, especially in areas where transhumant animals are concentrated (e.g. the Mali-Mauritanian border). In the absence of enough feed for their animals, pastoralists are forced to sell their livestock for very low prices. For example, in Mali, the cost of fodder has risen from 140,000 FCFA per ton to 250,000 FCFA per ton since March 2020. In Senegal and Burkina Faso, the Association for the Promotion of the Livestock in the Sahel and the Savanna (APESS) observed fire sales of famished animals. The short-term impact is an immediate loss of income for pastoralists. In the medium to long term, APESS predicts the disappearance of the reproductive nucleus and thus the depletion of herds. This would mean total loss of employment for some pastoralists.
In the case of cacao, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana produce more than 60 percent of the global supply of cocoa. As of April 2020, cacao imports in Côte d’Ivoire were down 1.7 percent from the same period last season, at around 1,645 thousand metric tons. Cacao production is already facing structural constraints that are expected to worsen with COVID-19, likely leading to a decline in exports. This comes at the worst moment as land preparation and planting require an intensive workforce from April to June. Current restrictions on public gathering and internal movement may reduce farmers’ participation in mutual aid activities, lead to reduced planting surface and declining production. Expected decreased demand from America, Europe and to some extent China will also affect the commercialisation of cacao in June-July and December 2020 and significantly reduce the revenues of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. Prices in April were down to USD$2235 per metric ton, USD$425 less than early March, and USD$90 less than the same period in 2019.
Prior to COVID-19, pastoralism was already under pressure by conflict in West Africa. It is the main economic activity in two of the world’s predominant clusters of conflict, the Liptako-Gourma and the Lake Chad basin. Many grazing areas or livestock markets are made inaccessible by conflict. Market closure, border closure and movement restrictions made a bad situation worse, and have put additional pressure on pastoralists in the region, disrupting the entire pastoral value chain
West Africa (principally Côte d’Ivoire, Benin and Guinea-Bissau) is the largest regional producer of cashew nuts in the world, and Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s single largest exporter. It represents an important industry for countries like Benin and GuineaBissau. Officially, more than 80 percent of the population in Guinea-Bissau depends directly on the cultivation of cashews for their subsistence. In Benin, cashew farmers are facing multiple challenges trying to adapt to COVID-19. Cashew is the second-most valuable export from Benin, with annual production reaching nearly 140,000 tons. Foreign buyers purchase 80 percent of the country’s raw cashew nuts, while the other 20 percent is processed locally. In the last few months, the government has closed borders and restricted movement, making it difficult for smallholder cashew farmers to continue to earn a living and support their families.
Vulnerable livelihoods In urban settings, the most vulnerable populations to COVID-19 mitigation measures are the low income informal workers. They are engaged in low-skill labour with no job security, depend on food markets to eat and live hand-to-mouth with little ability to store and save food or money. They also have little access to diversified nutritious diets or health care and live in crowded, unsanitary conditions. Many of them may also have comorbidities such as tuberculosis.
In rural settings, subsistence farmers and pastoralists are the most vulnerable populations. They represent more than 80 percent of the rural population. Movement restrictions largely affect the movement of farmers and pastoralists living in localities close to large urban centres, who often come to urban markets to sell part of their crops and return to the village with manufactured goods. The movement restrictions and the closure of rural markets thus affect traditional mechanisms of destocking of local agricultural products and livestock by farmers and pastoralists. Since the beginning of the crisis, there has also been a rise in police harassment, informal tax levies and bribes at borders and checkpoints that are passed on in prices to consumers. In countries that had a below-average agricultural season, rural households engaged in subsistence agriculture might become increasingly dependent on buying their food from markets – all while some markets are closed. For example, Mauritania, Gambia, Senegal, Cabo Verde and Sierra Leone (and somewhat Niger and Côte d’Ivoire) had below-average cereal production compared to the five-year average.
As stocks in these countries are running low earlier than usual, they will rely on food markets for food. They are already experiencing early rising prices of dry cereals as stocks decline. But even in countries like Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali that had been recording prices below the five-year average prior to the pandemic, trends are rising. It is important to note that this situation is further compounded by the usual increase in demand and speculation by traders during Ramadan (April-May 2020), and the lean season in coastal states which lasts from May to July. Predictions say these price rises may exceed 25% in June 2020. This means high food prices and a reduction of the purchasing capacity of the most vulnerable households. In addition, some traders are taking advantage of this opportunity to raise the price of imported rice. In Senegal, rice price per 50 kg bag has increased from 21,500 XOF to 25,000 XOF (more than 16%). In West Africa, households already spend 80 percent of their income on food. If farmers go bankrupt, they could be forced to sell their land to large landholders, producing a major increase in inequality.
In West Africa, mitigation measures have led to a drastic decline in economic activities. This has led companies to reduce their workforces, and as a result, thousands of employees have been placed on technical or partial unemployment. In Niger for example, nearly 70% of people have been placed on technical unemployment. Sensitive sectors such as education and transport have not escaped the dramatic effects of COVID19 on the economy. At the level of Niger’s employers, it is claimed that overall, 50% of private sector employees have temporarily stopped working. But employers did not always take measures in line with the country’s labour code. In this regard, several employees claim that they have not received any compensation provided for by the regulations in force.
Some protections measures have been put in place or announced in West Africa, but these are very few. The most comprehensive effort is from Senegal, where the president issued an ordinance to prohibit layoffs and guarantee income to workers laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic (70 percent of the wages of employees laid off during this period). The new decree prohibits the use of dismissal other than that motivated by gross misconduct (termination for cause). The measure obliges employers to seek with staff representatives and unions alternative solutions such as reducing working hours, shift work, anticipating paid holidays, redeployment of staff and part-time work. In the case of short-time work, the pay cannot be lower than the guaranteed minimum 70 percent wage of the employee net salary of the last three months of activity. To help companies comply with these measures, the state announced tax reductions and exemptions for companies.
While labour unions celebrated the measures, employers denounced them as out of touch, and said they would lead most small- to medium size businesses to cease all activities in the absence of cash flow. Similar measures are in the pipeline in Côte d’Ivoire, where the government announced four support funds would be set up to support workers whose contracts were terminated or suspended as a result of COVID-19, especially in the agricultural sector.
Such support measures only apply to formal workers, however, and thus don’t help most of the population. Without corresponding support measures for informal workers, this could lead to a further push towards the informal economy, as companies become afraid to hire people on a formal contract, thus worsening employment conditions. As such, several countries have announced general support packages which are likely to benefit workers in the informal economy. For example, Burkina Faso announced a 394 CFA emergency plan which includes the creation of a solidarity fund for informal traders of fruits and vegetables, as well as the acquisition of agricultural output and animal fodder to support pastoralists.
Perspectives for post-COVID-19 recovery
Disruptions in value chains in West Africa could lead to increased inequality and major financial vulnerability in the future. If farmers and pastoralists go broke and lose or sell their assets (herds or lands), this will create long-lasting and irremediable poverty for households, thus creating a much larger group of dissatisfied people. As such, beyond the health impact in mainly urban settings, the effects of mitigation measures could ripple down to rural regions.
In a region prone to political violence and home to two clusters of conflict – Liptako-Gourma and Lake Chad Basin – the disruptions could lead to much more dramatic long-term security and rule of law trajectories. Governments with authoritarian proclivities are also exploiting COVID-19 to settle political disputes. Data shows an increase of COVID-19-related violence against civilians by state forces.
Multiple governments (e.g., Guinea, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin) have used COVID-19 to alter the role of the opposition and manipulate upcoming elections. With multiple elections in 2020, this comes at a crucial time for political stability and democracy. In Nigeria, more people died from excessive policing than from COVID-19 during the month of April. For example, in early April, four traders died at a market after a brutal police crackdown. COVID-19-related incidents make up nearly 20% of all political violence and protests in Nigeria and have led to 32 reported fatalities. Police brutality is also rampant in Togo, Benin and Liberia, where video clips circulate on social media of security forces targeting civilians. In Sierra Leone, opposition protests have been banned under the pretext of a health response. As protests erupt throughout the region against stringent mitigation measures, governments are forced to do tradeoffs between economy, health and political stability.
Role for local unions
In a democracy like Senegal, unions have been instrumental in government measures protecting workers from layoffs and salary suspension. It is important for unions to start social dialogue with employers and the government on topics such as avoidance of layoffs and wages. So far, there has been no major sign that the state is using the pandemic to push antiworker legislation in West Africa. Rather, the focus has been to secure political gains. However, as the situation unfolds, unions should stay alert, especially since social protests have been limited by social distancing measures.
As described above, mitigation measures have had dramatic unintended consequences. Market closure especially has put enormous pressure on already vulnerable traders, farmers and pastoralists. COVID-19 is not the only crisis, and probably not the biggest crisis, in West Africa. But poorly designed and unadapted mitigation measures will make a bad situation worse. As seen in Burkina Faso, market closure has led to significant and violent protest, forcing the government to scale back on the restrictive measures. Unions’ main role should be in identifying deficiencies and shortcomings in top-down initiatives that are not adapted to the reality on the ground, and engaging in social dialogue with both government and employers to develop more attuned responses. Unions could contribute to concrete actions by the government on occupational safety and health, and draw attention to the overall needs of workers.
The first priority for West African governments will be to keep food coming and essential workers moving. Traditional urban retail food markets represent around 80 to 90 percent of all food sales in West Africa. One perspective for recovery is to ensure that agricultural products, services and workers are identified as essential and qualify for exemption, providing them with the corresponding safety and security.
Les Wathinotes sont soit des résumés de publications sélectionnées par WATHI, conformes aux résumés originaux, soit des versions modifiées des résumés originaux, soit des extraits choisis par WATHI compte tenu de leur pertinence par rapport au thème du Débat. Lorsque les publications et leurs résumés ne sont disponibles qu’en français ou en anglais, WATHI se charge de la traduction des extraits choisis dans l’autre langue. Toutes les Wathinotes renvoient aux publications originales et intégrales qui ne sont pas hébergées par le site de WATHI, et sont destinées à promouvoir la lecture de ces documents, fruit du travail de recherche d’universitaires et d’experts.
The Wathinotes are either original abstracts of publications selected by WATHI, modified original summaries or publication quotes selected for their relevance for the theme of the Debate. When publications and abstracts are only available either in French or in English, the translation is done by WATHI. All the Wathinotes link to the original and integral publications that are not hosted on the WATHI website. WATHI participates to the promotion of these documents that have been written by university professors and experts