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Trade Experts: African Countries Must Simplify Grain Trade to Help Avert Famine

Grain trade experts are urging African governments to reduce bureaucratic hurdles to moving grain across borders, and adopt uniform standards to help solve food shortages and avert famines.

At a meeting held in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, this week, grain experts from 21 countries said allowing free movement of grain between African countries could help alleviate the food shortages currently experienced by 23 nations in Africa.

Shem Shimuyemba works for the Common Market for Eastern And Southern Africa (COMESA) on a project that supports agricultural trade expansion.

"COMESA has already adopted a policy that is called 'Maize Without Borders,' and what that entails is, essentially, removal of all barriers to regional grain trade, and barriers," he explained. "In this case, means tariffs, quota restrictions, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, and so on. The idea is to harmonize standards and food safety regulations, so that the maize and other food crops can move across the region from one country to another unimpeded."

Mr. Shimuyemba says nine of the 23 countries facing food shortage are found in the COMESA region, including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

The regional body estimates that the region will be forced to import two million tons of grain this year to meet a shortfall resulting from poor harvests.

The experts say bureaucracy, such as required trade permits, hinder farmers from selling their grain across borders.

Mr. Stephen Njukia is a commodity specialist at the Regional Agricultural Trade Expansion Support Program in Nairobi.

"You may need a certificate of origin to move from one country to another," he said. "But, if you are moving from across the border, that certificate may be issued 500 kilometers away. So, a small trader is not going to go 500 kilometers away to get a certificate of origin to move maize worth $500, and less."

Mr. Njukia says his organization has been urging governments to bring services closer to the borders, and to reduce the bureaucracy involved in grain export. One of the proposed measures is to eliminate bureaucratic hurdles for grain exports worth less than $500.

The experts also say African nations should look at food security as a regional issue, rather than a national one. They say the region imports more grain than it trades among member countries. They say lack of information on grain requirements and harvests sometimes lead countries to hoard or restrict grain exports in the belief that the harvest may not be enough for domestic consumption.

They say African countries should also improve their road, rail and sea networks to ease movement of grain between them. Aid agencies in the region are sometimes forced to import food aid from other continents because of poor infrastructure and logistics among African nations.