Blog Post

New Database Provides Improved Look at Intra-Regional Trade in West Africa

Trade plays a critical role in economic development and agricultural transformation. However, reported intra-regional trade in Africa south of the Sahara (SSA) has historically been quite low, potentially impacting poverty, livelihoods, and food security in the region. Over the past decade, policymakers have set out to change this, signing the 2014 Malabo Declaration that aims to triple intra-African trade in agricultural goods by 2025 and establishing the African Continental Free Trade Agreement to remove barriers to cross-border trade. A remaining challenge, however, is a lack of accurate and reliable data regarding trade levels in the region; it is possible that actual intra-regional trade in SSA is higher than believed.

Researchers hope a new database will help fill this data gap in West Africa. The ECOWAS Informal Cross Border trade (ECO-ICBT) database[1] tracks and measures cross-border trade in 178 agricultural and food products among countries that are members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), plus Chad and Mauritania, for 2017-2020.

One of the database’s key strengths is its data collection process. Information regarding agricultural and food trade (in both value and volume) is collected in real time in marketplaces and along trade corridors in West Africa and the Sahel; this data is gathered collaboratively by the West African Trade Association for Cross-Border Trade in Agro-Forestry Pastoral and Fisheries Products (WACTAF), government entities, and private sector trade associations. This cooperation between economic actors ensures more accurate, robust data collection. In addition, the use of specially trained agents and electronic recording processes ensures that the data collected meet international customs standards, prevents double counting, and verifies accurate recording.

According to ECO-ICBT data, trade in animals, animal products, and maize represents more than half of all intraregional trade flows by value. Traders mainly transport their products via trucks, with small percentages of trade occurring by foot. In 2017, total regional exports reached over US $500 million. Burkina Faso and Mali were the top exporting countries that year (40 percent and 35 percent of regional exports, respectively). Imports also reached over US $500 million in 2017, with Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Senegal together accounting for 60 percent of total imports. Most of the region’s cross-border trade in 2017 was in livestock (cattle and horses), while maize was the most commonly traded crop.

In 2020, by comparison, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Niger, and Mali accounted for 75 percent of the total US $215 million in exports. Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria accounted for 22 and 20 percent of total imports (US $223 million), respectively. As expected, total intra-regional trade was lower in 2020 than in previous years due to border closures and restrictions on movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cross-border trade was also more balanced between animal products and crops in 2020, but livestock remained the most traded products.

When compared to the COMTRADE database, the United Nations’ International Trade Statistics database, the ECO-ICBT captures up to 99 percent more trade flows in West Africa. While COMTRADE provides a broad look at trade in 170 reporting countries/territories, many West African countries do not contribute to it on a frequent basis. In addition, COMTRADE does not capture informal cross-border trade flows. Thus, more targeted and locally driven databases like ECO-ICBT provide better coverage of intraregional trade.


[1] The database was constructed by researchers from the Comité Inter-étatique de Lutte contre la Sècheresse au Sahel (CILSS), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the Association Ouest Africaine du Commerce Transfrontalier des produits Alimentaires, Agro-sylvo-pastoraux et Halieutiques (AOCTAH) / West African Association for CrossBorder Trade, in Agro-forestry-pastoral and Fisheries Products (WACTAF) and was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).