Agriculture, Trade and Sustainable Development: The Case of West Africa

Date period
1 September 2003

SummaryAgriculture is a central sector of West African (WA) economies, contributing a third of GDP, and occupying the majority of the population. Family farming provides the overwhelming share of agricultural production and export earnings. Such farms pursue multiple objectives, and aim to balance social, economic and cultural goals, while trying to reduce risk, diversify activities and ensure some autonomy from market relations.

The last 30 years have brought major long-term changes to WA agriculture. In most countries without civil war and conflict, farm production has more than kept pace with demographic growth, despite a decline in rainfall mainly in Sahelian countries. Exports of certain crops have been spectacular, with increases in output due to a large growth in cultivated area, and rising demand and prices for crops. Structural Adjustment policies in the 1980s led to cuts in agricultural subsidies and liberalisation of markets. Rapid urban growth has generated booming markets for food and other crops, and helped families diversify their livelihoods. At the same time, there is rising scarcity and value of land, especially in peri-urban areas, where a growing number of urban dwellers are investing in land, for speculation and commercial production. At the same time, producer organisations have taken on new roles, negotiating prices and access to inputs, as well as feeding into agricultural policy.

Looking towards the future:

    • The demand for food will go on increasing, given current rates of population growth

    • Environmental risks combined with rising demographic pressure constitute a potential threat to sustainable land and soils management;

    • New niche markets may offer promising alternatives through fair trade and produce, though these can only be of limited scale;

    • WA farmers will need better and more stable prices if they are to continue to expand production, invest in inputs and improved soil conservation and provide for the health and welfare of their families.