West Africa’s diet transformation: Will the region capitalise on its changing food demand?

By John Staatz, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics at Michigan State University, and Frank Hollinger, Economist at the Investment Centre Division (TCIA) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).


Demand for food in West Africa is changing dramatically, opening great opportunities to create new wealth and jobs. But will most of the wealth and jobs be created in West Africa or in the countries that export food to the region? The decisions made over the next few years by West Africans and their development partners will largely determine who benefits from this massive opportunity and its attendant challenges.

Rapidly evolving demand

Driven by strong population growth, urbanisation, rising incomes and changing consumer preferences, West Africans are not only eating more food each year but are also changing what they eat. As incomes rise and most consumers — including the nearly half of West Africans who now live in cities — become increasingly time-poor, people are demanding a more diverse diet that is easier to prepare and consume. Amongst the rising middle class — now a quarter of West Africa’s population — demand for perishable foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and animal-based products, is rising quickly. Safely and efficiently producing and delivering these to consumers entails tight co-ordination along all stages of the food system — from seed to the consumer’s table — requiring upgraded “hard” and “soft” infrastructure, such as reliable cold chains and improved product grades and standards. The good news is that if such improvements can be made, the production, processing and marketing of these products are much more labour-intensive than those of cereals, offering the opportunity to create many new jobs for West Africa’s burgeoning labour market.

Diet diversification is not just limited to perishables and the middle class, however. Across all income classes and geographic areas, West Africans are consuming a wider range of starchy staples (cereals, roots and tubers) than in the past, including more convenient “fast foods” derived from them, such as garb and attack. Demand for convenience – foods that are quick and easy to prepare and consume – is an overarching trend cutting across all countries and income groups. Increasingly pressed for time, consumers are willing to pay for others in the food system (processors, street-food vendors) to carry out some or all of the food processing and preparation for them, leading to rapidly growing demand for post-harvest activities.

The food system’s response

The response from the different levels of West Africa’s food system – farm-level production, food processing, retailing and policy – to these changes in demand has been mixed. Since 2008, when world prices of cereals spiked to record levels and most West African governments launched special food production initiatives, the ECOWAS region’s output of rice, maize and cassava has increased at between 6.5% and 7.9% per year — a remarkable achievement.  But production of perishables, particularly animal-based products like meat and milk, either stagnated or fell. Public-sector expenditures on agriculture have grown rapidly, but most of the increased spending has focused on farm-level production, with a heavy emphasis on fertiliser and seed subsidies. Relatively few funds have gone to the R&D and extension needed to boost long-term farm productivity, or to improving critical post-harvest activities such as product aggregation, wholesaling, processing, packaging and retailing. As a result, many larger-scale food processors in West Africa face difficulties obtaining locally the raw agricultural products in the quantities and qualities they need to operate their plants near capacity; hence, they often turn to imports. At the same time, small and medium-scale processors frequently have problems meeting the quality and packaging demands of the growing middle class, who then also turn to imports.

What’s needed to capture the new opportunities?

Much of the recent agricultural policy focus has been on understanding farmers’ constraints and helping overcome them. Yet in increasingly buyer-driven agricultural value chains, consumers are the ultimate financiers of the food system. Therefore, an improved understanding of their evolving preferences in terms of quality, convenience, safety and other food attributes is a prerequisite for producers to respond better to demand trends and successfully compete with imports.

At the same time, price still matters a lot to the three-fourths of West African consumers who subsist on less than USD 2 per day. Raising the price of food through higher import barriers designed to protect local farmers undermines these consumers’ real incomes and is probably a political non-starter. The only sustainable way to strengthen their food security while maintaining production incentives is to improve efficiency throughout the food system by improving “hard” and “soft” infrastructure.

Policy needs to focus on six areas to help West Africans capture the opportunities offered by the region’s evolving food demand:

  1. Improve the quality of public investment. More attention should focus on improving the performance of the off-farm elements of the food system (such as marketing, processing, packaging and logistics), which are increasingly under stress. At the farm level, public expenditures need to emphasise investments in infrastructure, technology development and farmer support services, rather than just input subsidies, to boost long-term productivity.
  2. Improve rural-urban linkages and intraregional trade. The strongest growth in demand for food will continue to come from urban areas, especially in coastal countries. Investments in transport, marketing infrastructure and regulatory reforms to improve market access, reduce post-harvest losses and expand input markets and support services in the rural hinterland will be critical in allowing West African farmers to capture a large share of this growing demand.
  3. Deepen regional integration. Free movement of goods and services reduces price volatility and allows the development of cross-border value chains. Moreover, to be competitive in a wide range of products with large global actors such as Brazil, China and India, West African agriculture needs to capture some of the scale economies those countries enjoy in agricultural research, input markets and technology development, among others.
  4. Build the skills base for West Africa’s food system in the 21st century. Transforming West Africa’s food system into a modern driver of economic growth will require a profoundly different set of skills than currently exist in most ECOWAS countries. Needed actions include strengthening basic literacy; linking curricula in primary and secondary schools to applications in farming and agro-industry; expanding vocational education programmes in the large range of technical skills needed by workers in a modern food system; attracting more girls to the sciences, given the important role that women play in West African agriculture; and broadening undergraduate university education in agricultural faculties to include fields such as food science, packaging and logistics.
  5. Improve policy co-ordination. Due to the growing importance of the off-farm segments of the food system and the environmental, nutritional and health implications of agricultural growth, food system policy-making needs to move beyond the traditional confines of agricultural ministries. Addressing many of the key constraints to more rapid and inclusive food system growth requires improved policy co-ordination and harmonisation between sectors, actors and along different levels of government, from supra-national to local levels.
  6. Improve policy implementation. Improving policy implementation means producing better data and a stronger evidence base for policies, investing in the capacities of key agencies and organisations charged with implementation, as well as ensuring the overall coherence of policies and programmes. The existence of robust national and regional private sector and civil-society stakeholder groups and a free press act as counterweights to inefficient policy implementation and rent seeking.


  1. Staatz, J. and F. Hollinger (2016), “West African Food Systems and Changing Consumer Demands”, West African Papers, No. 04, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/b165522b-en.
  2. Agricultural growth in West Africa: Market and policy drivers. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and African Development Bank. http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4337e.pdf
  3. French version: Croissance agricole en Afrique de l’Ouest: Facteurs déterminants de marché et de politique. www.fao.org/3/a-i4337f.pdf