Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Enabling Cross-Border Trade for Safe, Nutritious Foods in Africa

This is the first post in the Feed the Future Enabling Environment for Food Security project’s blog series exploring food safety and cross-border trade. You may also read the second installment, which discusses how different types of standards and regulations work in practice and the complementary roles they each play in mitigating food safety threats.

Across the African continent, leaders are discussing how to break down barriers to agricultural trade between countries to spur economic growth and increase access to safe, nutritious foods across borders. Several noteworthy developments highlight this progress:

  • The June 2014 Malabo Declaration, issued by African Union (AU) member heads of state, aims to increase inter-continental and cross-border trade beyond the 11 percent calculated by the World Bank at the time. [1] The declaration lays out a series of measurable goals for agriculture-led growth that require coherent and coordinated policy within participating countries, including for food safety. While the Declaration’s focus on food safety is not new, [2] momentum is currently increasing, particularly as cross-border trade is prioritized. The sheer amount of time it is taking to build — 56 years and counting — demonstrates how complex the harmonization of food safety rules across borders has been.
  • The 2016 Africa’s Continental Free Trade Area, fully ratified just two months ago by AU heads of state, ensures that the trillions of untapped intra-trade dollars are harnessed for growth and development. It essentially creates the largest free-trade area in the world — a single market of more than 1 billion people. It also represents further motivation for participating AU countries to coordinate trade policies, standards, and regulations, including for food safety.
  • In 2019, the AU, World Trade Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and World Health Organization co-hosted the International Forum on Food Safety and Trade, which brought leaders together to identify high-level actions and strategies to scale up cross-border trade of safe foods. At the event, the Commissioner for the AU’s Rural Economy and Agriculture, H.E. Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko, stated that overcoming legal and regulatory discrepancies for food safety “will be an obstacle to the fulfillment [and] implementation of our own African Continental Free Trade Area.” [3]

It thus behooves governments, private sector actors, and development agencies across Africa to support regulatory cooperation and institutional capacity building as a means of facilitating more efficient cross-border trade of safe, nutritious foods.

Connections Between Cross-Border Trade and Food Safety

For a continent faced with relatively high levels of malnutrition and food contamination, regulatory reforms must concentrate on food safety rules (standards, laws, and/or regulations). This is particularly evident when cases of food contamination have caused public health crises, such as South Africa’s 2017 outbreak of the foodborne disease listeriosis. The least developed countries across the continent often lack the appropriate rules as well as the institutional capacity and resources to monitor, inspect, test, or trace possible sources of food contamination.

Laws, regulations, and standards set minimum thresholds that smooth expectations and appropriate practices for market actors. Several prevailing rules within a market system may affect food safety along a supply chain. In addition to production, processing, packaging standards, and conformity assessment systems, transportation is a crucial link in cross-border food trade systems where contamination and spoilage of food can also occur. The World Bank’s Enabling the Business of Agriculture report, which covers 63 countries (of which 23 are in Africa), found that the majority of countries do not even have food transport regulations. [4]

Moreover, there is growing interest within the development community, boosted by partnerships such as the Food Safety Network and the Global Food Safety Partnership, in stimulating the transformation of food systems in Africa vis-à-vis food safety. This implies a more complex role for the region’s governments. These roles include not only creating an enabling environment for private sector investment in food systems, but also prioritizing food safety by reorienting public expenditures and strengthening institutional capacity to resolve market coordination failures related to public health and safety.

Supporting Regulatory Cooperation Across Borders

Increased trade within Africa can foster greater and more affordable access to nutritious foods. However, regulatory cooperation across borders is needed, including consistent enforcement of food safety standards and regulations in ways that foster consumer trust in a stable, healthy food supply.

Perhaps the most common type of regulatory cooperation discussed in terms of trade facilitation is harmonization. Harmonization is the process by which countries adopt identical rules, including laws, regulations, standards, and conformance systems. Though considered the gold standard of regulatory cooperation, this process is often difficult to achieve given the existence of diverse political economies across different countries.

An alternative form of regulatory cooperation is mutual recognition, where countries acknowledge differences in rules and conformity assessment systems across countries as long as an “acceptable level of protection” can be assured, based upon scientific evidence. There are several different mechanisms that can be utilized to assess an acceptable level of protection, which may include “equivalence” or “alignment” of different rules/procedures — or benchmarking national rules and procedures against widely accepted international standards.

Mutual recognition as well as harmonization can be facilitated within a regional bloc of countries (multilateral) or between two countries (bilateral). Both harmonization and mutual recognition hold pros and cons, though the overall goal is to put systems in place that build trust among market actors to facilitate cross-border trade and increase consumer access to safe food products.

Heads up! In the coming weeks, the EEFS project will be expanding the discussion around different forms of regulatory cooperation to facilitate trade, including sharing examples of how mutual recognition has been applied in other contexts to present lessons learned for Africa.

USAID’s Food Safety and Cross-Border Trade Programming Across Africa

Creating an efficient, rules-based market system for cross-border trade of safe and nutritious foods in Africa is not a simple endeavor that can be achieved overnight. However, some USAID Feed the Future projects showcase ways forward for creating an enabling environment that supports regional food safety. The more we can learn from these successes, the faster African countries can improve food supplies that strengthen food security and health outcomes across the continent.

  • Investments in institutional capacity building play an important role in streamlining trade processes for more seamless and safer trade for nutritious products. [5] An example of this capacity building comes from the USAID East Africa Trade and Investment Hub, where senior government officials across the region received training on harmonized sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) protocols. [6] The initiative developed a network of SPS inspectors to support safe and efficient intra-regional trade as well as created cohesive, cross-country collaboration to pool resources and better engage in inter-continental trade.
  • An enabling environment must take into account the role of both public and private actors in supporting food safety and nutrition in cross-border trade. An example of ensuring the supply of safe and nutritious foods to the marketplace comes from the USAID Southern Africa Trade Hub. One of the Hub’s activities included a training of Malawian groundnut processors on the safe disposal of groundnuts contaminated with aflatoxin. [7] Representatives from various associations and government ministries also attended and learned about common sources of contamination, how to mitigate contamination, and the safe disposal of a contaminated product.
  • Regulatory frameworks must strengthen human and institutional capacities for food safety control at national and local levels. To address food safety issues, the USAID-funded Nigeria Expanded Trade and Transportation project connected the five ministries in charge of food safety to create a cross-government committee. Together, the committee developed the National Food Safety Policy. The policy put into place a framework to promote availability of safe food despite the complexities of storage, transport, and packaging.

Open Question to Readers!

What other types of enabling environment improvements do you see as necessary to foster stronger and safer cross-border food systems in Africa?


1. Kingsley Makhubela, “Africa's Greatest Economic Opportunity: Trading With Itself,” World Economic Forum, published on January 16, 2018, accessed July 9, 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/why-africas-best-trading-partner-is-itself/

2. See the Codex Alimentarius Commission (1963) and Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (2004).

3. “Addressing Food Safety Concerns Through Trade and Cooperation,” World Trade Organization, published April 26, 2019, accessed July 9, 2019, https://youtu.be/BL4s4f0_jAc.

4. World Bank, Enabling the Business of Agriculture, accessed July 9, 2019, https://eba.worldbank.org/.

5. “State of the Evidence: Cross-Border Trade,” Enabling Agricultural Trade project, accessed July 9, 2019, http://eatproject.org/docs/State_of_the_Evidence_Cross_Border_Trade.pdf.

6. “USAID Hub Supports Safe, Efficient EAC Trade Through Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Capacity Building,” published on February 13, 2018, accessed on July 9, 2019,  https://www.eatradehub.org/usaid_facilitates_eac_trade_through_sanitary_and_phytosanitary_sps_capacity_building.

7. Aflatoxin contamination is of particular importance, because it is it frequently used to make food supplements for malnourished children, thereby putting their weakened bodies at higher risk.