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To Increase Security in West Africa, Invest in the Agricultural Sector

Megatrends spotlight 28, 08.11.2023

In the context of the renewed efforts to rethink Europe’s approach towards the African continent, as well as the continuing deterioration of security in the Sahel and the northern parts of the countries around the Gulf of Guinea, fresh approaches are needed to address the spread and roots of jihadism. In this Megatrends Afrika Spotlight, Jonathan Guiffard, Senior Fellow at the Institut Montaigne highlights the importance of modernising the agricultural sector as a key pathway towards to more inclusive development.


Root Causes of Jihadism in West Africa

In a new report published by Institut Montaigne in September 2023, the political, economic and social factors that help to explain the root causes for the emergence and spread of jihadist groups in West Africa were the starting point of our analysis. As has been widely acknowledged, the current dynamics of violence are rooted in feelings of injustice and frustration among the politically and economically marginalised populations in countries that are poor, but not devoid of economic growth.

This economic growth, however, masks the disparities both within the countries and, more generally, between the Sahel and the coastal countries. As it remains a challenge to reach the more remote locales, jihadist movements continue to thrive on the disparities between urban and rural areas.

These structural challenges are currently aggravated by the inflationary context resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine – two exogenous shocks that have had a significant impact on West Africa’s fragile economies, and in particular on food security. African countries import more than 80% of their food products, compared to only 65% in Asia, 32% in North America and 26% in Europe.

Agriculture as a Foundation of Economic Growth and Security

Against this backdrop, our report focussed on the modernisation of the agricultural sector as being an important pathway towards more inclusive development, thereby contributing to conflict prevention and, in particular, the expansion of jihadist recruitment. Indeed, jihadist movements tend to recruit more in the rural and politically isolated communities because they find fertile ground for their political arguments and revolutionary stance, but also because they can provide salaries and economic benefits. For that matter, increasing the agricultural share of gross domestic product appears to be guaranteed solution for sustainable poverty reduction and economic integration. However, the share of official development assistance (ODA) for agriculture has never been lower: declining from 17% in the 1980s to 3% in 2023.

Achieving sufficient agro-industrial production levels to create sustainable added value for the populations should be the main priority. The revamping of agriculture is all the more critical as it will be driven by demographic growth and the urbanisation of these societies. Despite certain risks, having European companies invest structurally in these countries – with tailored public instruments such as public guarantees for private finance, de-risking tools and public–private partnerships to finance projects at the early stages – will undoubtedly prove to be a beneficial strategy, in the short term on the economic level, and in the medium and long terms on the security level. A public–private approach that includes the expertise of European companies and development professionals could enable the emergence of a model of partnerships between European and West African actors: The public and private actors can work together to design fewer but more efficient development projects, but also share expertise and specific tools with their West African counterparts to support the growth of competitive companies in this sector.

Thus, the report aims to enable European political leaders to articulate a more targeted and more impactful economic cooperation policy, while investing sustainably in the agricultural sector in the region. By focussing on agriculture and proposing ways for West African officials to calibrate their public policies, we adopt a resolutely optimistic, forward-looking approach.

Tackling Challenges in the Agricultural Sector: Four Priorities

The propositions are not revolutionary: In theory, the solutions already exist, but the agricultural sector faces a great number of challenges that need to be addressed first. In order to tackle these challenges, we propose four axes.

The first axis seeks to revamp the West African agricultural sector through a stabilised land policy (land certification and regulation), upstream investment in agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilisers, mechanisation and drones, experimentation lands, etc.) and investments in specific tools (local food transformation, cooperatives, free-trade zones, international cooperation). The share of spending by sub-Saharan African countries on agricultural research and development is close to zero (around 0.5% of global spending). The same gap in productivity exists on every level: For example, local agriculture uses around 20 kg of fertiliser per hectare, whereas Europeans use 175 kg and China almost 400 kg. Adding to this gap, the main difficulty for farmers is that they lose between 30% and 50% of their production due to the lack of conservation and storage capabilities and/or bad infrastructure.

The second axis concerns building infrastructure and developing agricultural and business skills. The more efficient use of water and electricity could be widely extended through irrigation and dams: West Africa (1.4%) and East Africa (4.5%) lag behind on the rate of land irrigation, as compared to India (45%) and China (56%). Nonetheless, African countries could have one key advantage: the non-centralised solar capabilities/ solar grids. African countries benefit from one of the best sunshine rates, and photovoltaic technologies are becoming affordable. This requires public support and private payment solutions to be deployed at a large scale. As soon as more infrastructure is available, European ODA can focus on larger projects. Europe does not need to do small-scale development projects. Finally, the need for skills transfer, which should become mandatory for every public development project. Combined with increased cooperation in agronomy, this policy could help build a workforce that is capable of transitioning the agricultural sector from being subsistence-orientated to business-orientated.

The third axis revolves around the financing of the agricultural sector and the changes needed in private financing and ODA. The agricultural sector is poorly financed. In 2016, only 4.8% of all African private business loans were dedicated to agriculture. The private sector should be encouraged to invest sustainably in the agricultural sector and promote national and local agricultural banks and investment companies through public–private partnerships, offering guarantees against existent risks. There is also a need for fewer, but more impactful ODA projects. Data shows that countries which need ODA the least are the ones that benefit the most from it; the data also shows that agricultural production needs to become a priority. Moreover, African countries can benefit from technical assistance in collecting taxes more efficiently. This can be achieved through innovative administrative measures and by following interesting new ideas, as in Tunisia and Senegal during the pandemic, whereby they increased efforts to register members of the informal sector with incentives.

Finally, we encourage foreign companies to invest in the agricultural sector and transform the economic prospects of the region by highlighting the positive evolution of the business environment and establishing an export policy dedicated to agro-industrial investments and private partnerships between European and African companies.

Attractive for Investment: West Africa’s Advantages

One major point in the report deserves special attention: West Africa has advantages as an attractive location for investment. Despite serious socio-political challenges, West Africa remains an economically dynamic region that has strong growth, not only economically but also demographically. West Africa’s population growth will drive the demand for agricultural products. The population is young, educated and digitally native. Its geographical, linguistic and cultural proximity to Europe is another strong advantage.

Thanks to reforms and efforts to harmonise regulations, West Africa’s business environment is gradually improving. It offers European companies many opportunities as well as sustainable and profitable investments, particularly within the framework of local partnerships, which will in turn contribute to the economic development of the region. These developments can counteract the emergence and spread of jihadist groups and provide a long-term approach to tackling extremism in the region.