In 2000, the member states of the Economic Community of West
African States (ECOWAS) signaled their commitment to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger and poverty by 2015 (MDG1). To achieve that goal, agriculture in the region needed to grow by 6.8 percent annually. From 2000 to 2009, however, West African agriculture grew at half the desired rate—3.7 percent—due to many biophysical and socioeconomic constraints, including heavy reliance on rainfed production systems, traditional practices of soil fertility maintenance, and limited access to markets. Consequently, crop yields in West Africa are significantly lower than global averages, and their rate of increase has barely kept up with population growth. Cereal production in West Africa increased by 4.4 percent per annum from 1980 to 2009, an annual growth rate only marginally above the population growth rate. About two-thirds of this growth was accounted for by expanding cultivated area; one-third represented yield growth.
This trend will have to change, as land becomes scarcer while demand for cereals and other agricultural products continues to grow, as a result of population and income growth as well as urbanization. Future agricultural growth will have to rely more on productivity gains through the adoption of improved technologies based on fertilizers, improved seeds, water harvesting, and better agronomic practices. Yields for most crops have the potential to almost double, with greater intensification in these inputs, especially given their current low levels of adoption. The average fertilizer use in the region in 2008 was only 8 kilograms of nutrients per hectare, while the area planted under improved seed amounted to less than 25 percent.
A long-term policy objective must be to promote agricultural productivity and profitability, and to induce the adoption and greater use of appropriate inputs. Fertilizer is particularly important to replenish soil nutrient depletion and soil degradation from increased crop production, but underdeveloped national fertilizer markets and recent global trends have kept fertilizer prices high, profitability low, and accessibility poor. Improving the functioning and performance of national and regional fertilizer markets will be essential to reduce transaction costs and increase profitability, and to enhance fertilizer use in ECOWAS member states.