Buying food aid locally also has risks

The port city of Douala is still a major hub for international food aid heading to Chad and Central African Republic, but the World Food Programme (WFP) in Cameroon is buying an increasing amount of its requirements locally.

Of the 70,000mt of food aid WFP’s regional office in Cameroon is forwarding to emergencies in neighbouring countries this year, about 26,000mt has been produced in Cameroon.

WFP told IRIN that the percentage of food it purchases in West and Central Africa for distribution in the region grew from 13 percent in 2005, to over 30 percent for 2007 with Cameroon being the largest supplier followed by Burkina Faso.

That means a dramatic reduction in transport times and costs. It has also created income for local suppliers and producers and that has trickled down into the communities.

It makes a lot of sense as countries like Cameroon often produce surpluses,” said WFP logistician Boubacar Diop.

But there are also risks, he said. “We’re encouraging farmers to grow more and more,” he said. If the emergencies in the region end then WFP will stop buying and the farmers could get stuck with a lot of unwanted food.

Even worse, if WFP were to buy up too much locally-produced food, prices for local consumers could rise and that could lead to food insecurity for the poor. “The worst thing that could happen is that in trying to stop a famine in one place we create a famine in another,” Doip said.


Photo: David Hecht/IRIN
Local cereal sellers in Douala's central market

Such risks are a daily concern for Cameroon WFP Regional Director Jean-Pierre Cebron. “We are procuring food [in northern Cameroon] in a very fragile environment where rainfall is unpredictable,” he said. “If there were to be a drought we’d be in big trouble,” he said.

“Overall it’s a good thing that WFP is stimulating local production as well as providing incentives to farmers to meet international standards of food quality,” he said. “We just have to do it carefully.”

The pros

Many of the local entrepreneurs from the north who supply WFP with sorghum are chiefs and elders in the villagers where the food is procured and they have close and complex relationships with the farmers from whom they buy.

“Everyone in our communities is benefiting,” Ousmanou Ballo, who in April supplied WFP with 1500mt of sorghum and 744mt of beans, told IRIN. “Farmers have more work, as do transporters. Even our animals get more to eat from the part of the food aid that is thrown away after processing”.

Aboubakari Fadil, another of WFP’s suppliers, predicted that because of WFP’s purchases in 2007, local food production in their area will increase next season. “They are creating added demand,” he said.

He says he is not too worried if the humanitarian crises in nearby countries suddenly ends and WFP were to stop buying. “We have a culture of storing; we never throw away anything,” he said. “We have the ability to store food for two years at a time so if there is a surplus of one cereal then the following year the farmers will produce another cereal or they’ll produce cotton,” Fadil said.

And if, on the other hand, demand from WFP were to suddenly increase, he could quickly increase supply, he said. “Food aid will always be a small percentage of our business. Mostly we sell to commercial traders in the region,” Fadil said.

Indeed stocks of sorghum and maize in the central market in Douala dwarfed those in the WFP warehouses. The cereal sellers there said their clients mostly ship the cereal to ports along the central African coast as far as Angola.


Photo: David Hecht/IRIN
WFP officials inspect US food aid in the port of Douala

Fadil said that in cereal markets in the north the largest buyers are currently from Nigeria on Cameroon’s western border. But if the crises in countries east of Cameroon were to suddenly end, reducing demand for food aid, then normal trade would bounce back.

“Traditionally we exported a lot of cereals to Chad and Sudan and we see no reason why we will not export there again once things return to normal,” he said.

The cons

WFP officials spoke more cautiously. “It is difficult for us to gauge how much cereal is really available and we know that we need to help suppliers and transporters build their capacities to deliver on time,” WFP Regional Procurement Officer Brigitte Labbé told IRIN. “Up until now they have had trouble meeting our deadlines.”

The suppliers IRIN spoke with said their capacity to deliver would be adequate if only WFP gave them more lead time. “In April WFP gave us all just 30 days to fill their orders,” supplier Maliki Dahirou said. “All the suppliers were completing to buy the same sorghum from the same farmers.”

According to Fadil, who filled an order for WFP in April for 1,250mt of sorghum, “The farmers saw how desperate we were to buy from them so obviously they raised their prices. Then after WFP’s orders were filled, demand for sorghum dropped and the price crashed.” he said.

He and the other suppliers said that WFP would have a less volatile effect on the local cereal market if it staggered orders and gave them more lead time.

But Labbé said that’s not the way WFP works. “A purchase is usually directly related to a particular donation for a food crisis. Rarely can we purchase food with long lead times and certainly not before farmers start planting”.

International food aid to Douala on the other hand takes an average of three months from the time a donor agrees to give the aid to the time it arrives in the port in Douala. Then it takes another 45 days to travel by land to the beneficiaries. But the difference there is that donors give the food, and the cost of transporting it, for free.

“One of the reasons WFP is trying to procure more food locally is so that we can better respond to crises quickly,” Labbé said.


Photo: David Hecht/IRIN
International food aid arriving at the port in Douala

Logistics

Food aid has many ironies: One is that the food that arrives in Douala by ship destined for emergency areas in Chad and Sudan is sent north almost 1,000 km by train to Ngoundere and arrives at what happens to be one of the main corn growing areas in Cameroon. The cost of trucking the local food from Ngoundere to the emergency areas nearby is negligible compared to the cost of getting the food all the way to Ngoundere from overseas.

Another irony is that the local cereals sell for below international prices, according to WFP’s Labbé. “The prices are often more than 30 percent lower than international purchases,” she said.

“When buying 20,000mt sorghum and 5,000mt maize meal in Cameroon to serve the CAR and Chad emergency operations, we saved up to $3.5 million versus the cheapest international purchases of the equivalent commodity.”

Until recently the savings in cost and time have been irrelevant for many donors, particularly the US, the world’s largest supplier of food aid, which, critics claim, directly and indirectly subsidises its farmers to produce food surpluses.

The European Union has come to endorse a policy of local and regional procurement of food aid and Canada has a policy of producing no more than 50 percent of its total food aid domestically.

The Bush administration has proposed that $300 million of its $1.2 billion food aid budget be produced outside the US but the US congress has so far blocked the measure.

“Donors that supply food aid in kind, and particularly the USA, should… untie a large proportion of its food aid, so as to contribute to the development of local agriculture, trade and livelihoods,” food aid expert Jonathan Coulter states in his recent essay in the Journal of Humanitarian Assistance titled, Local and Regional Procurement of Food Aid in Africa: Impact and Policy Issues. 

Yet Coulter warns of “a general lack of information” on the impact of purchasing food aid locally and his top recommendation is “to devote more resources to assessing the impact.”

“Governments and donors should strive to improve the information basis for food aid distribution, including local purchases. This will involve enhancing the accuracy of crop forecasts, food balance sheets and estimates of marketed surpluses.”

Labbé agrees. “We need to enhance our knowledge of regional markets if we are to increase regional procurement,” she said. “Currently we are just making spot purchases. We need to build a purchasing strategy”.

Yet another irony in northern Cameroon is that areas where there are often food surpluses border areas in the extreme north where there are frequent food shortages, “But that does not mean that we are making a mistake by exporting food from Cameroon to Chad and CAR,” Cebron, the WFP director in Cameroon, said.

“Look closely and you’ll you see that there are very poor transport links between those areas in the Cameroon and in fact the easiest market for people in the extreme north to access is in neighbouring Nigeria”.

His point is that buying food aid locally is complicated, “So you better know what you’re doing,” he said.

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