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On 7 July 2019, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) entered into its operational phase at a summit of the African Union in Niamey, Niger, less than 2 months after the agreement went into effect on 30 May 2019. The AfCFTA covers goods and services and has complementary programs for infrastructure, industrialisation, agriculture transformation and small-scale trade, as well as innovation, intellectual property, competition and investment.

Three African economic blocks — the East African Community (EAC), the Common Market for East and Southern Africa and the Southern Africa Development Corporation (SADC) — have merged to form one large economic space free of tariffs and non-tariff barriers (NTBs) that spans half of the African continent. The EAC, COMESA and SADC Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) is the building block for the AfCFTA.

With a combined GDP of US $6.7 trillion, 60 percent of the world’s arable land and vast strategic minerals, the AfCFTA provides a favourable investment climate and a large market for trade and investment. By promoting industrialisation, this unique integration model triggers economic opportunities for African producers and processors. It is transformative and calls for action now. However, the AfCFTA, like all trade agreements, will have winners and losers.

One of the major challenges under TFTA is sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) regulatory hurdles, which African producers and processors must overcome as they strive to access regional and international markets. In Africa, it is said to be easier to import food from other continents than to trade across regional borders. Regulatory bottlenecks, including food safety, are among the reasons that intra-Africa trade is estimated to be as low as 11%.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that included seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The first three SDGs — reducing poverty, achieving food security and improving health — are some of the biggest challenges Africa faces and will be key to unlocking the potential of the continent and its people.

The Food Safety Challenge

One of the fundamental problems Africa will need to address to achieve the first three SDGs is that of food safety. A cohesive and verifiable farm-to-fork food safety regime on the continent will go a long way not only to improving the health of Africans, but also to opening regional and global export markets to African food products.

To that end, Africa will need to accomplish three things:

  1. develop a harmonious food safety policy framework and regulatory institutions to establish standards, ensure compliance to those standards and provide oversight;
  2. increase the capacity of African producers to meet global food safety standards, embrace new transformative technologies and produce products that comply with global standards for food safety and traceability; and
  3. improve border management processes to reduce costs of food safety compliance and connect regional value chains across borders.

How can African food systems respond to these challenges, given the fragmented and disconnected food systems, cumbersome border crossing points and the low levels of literacy amongst the majority of the food producers and processors? The answer is participation in food safety training programmes. While such programmes do exist, they are not widely accessible and are generally geared towards the bigger, more sophisticated producers on the continent, largely leaving out Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs).

The Solution

When I used the GFSI’s Global Markets Programme to train African SMEs on food safety, the demand was overwhelming, more than I ever experienced in my professional life — for the simple reason that the Global Markets Programme makes food safety certification affordable and accessible by small scale food producers and processors.

The Global Markets Programme is a structure-training programme that has helped to create harmonised competencies amongst a critical mass of food safety professionals. Therefore, the Global Markets Programme could be the means to close the food safety knowledge gap in African SMEs. By marrying African food safety experts and professionals with technology, this programme can deliver the information and know-how in a manner that African producers and processors can understand — effectively, affordably and at scale.

Inspired by the 2019 GFSI Government to Business Meetings, I have embarked on:

  • Partnering with African food safety experts and practitioners to study global food safety certification programmes, particularly GFSI benchmarked programmes, and understand the underlying issues that inhibit compliance in the African context, with the aim of translating that information into clear and concise, standardised training materials, tools and programmes that can be consumed by a wide range of SMEs across Africa.
  • Recruiting and training local African talent to work with the experts and handle the delivery of the training programs on the ground. This new group of local food safety professionals will be uniquely able to contribute to the effective communication of the message on the ground. They will grow to become food safety experts themselves and help to close the food safety skills gap on the continent.
  • Enlisting internet and technology specialists to add the capacity to share and communicate easily using video (both live and recorded), pictures and instant messages in the training process. This capacity will allow further scalability of the training since it will greatly reduce the need for the physical presence of the experts and/or trainers at the training or factory sites.

The Conclusion

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Partnership with GFSI is key to improving food safety in Africa!

This blog was written and contributed by:

Martha Byanyima
Head – Sanitary and Phytosanitary Programme
Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA)

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