An interview with Baba Didoum, AGRF Food 2019 Prize winner

After listening to the formal AGRF press conference announcement of the two AGRF 2019 Food Prize winners, I was inspired to sit down with each of them to get a better understanding of what drives them, and what they hope to achieve in the future. I want to talk to one of the winners of the Africa Food Prize.

Second-placed Baba Didoum

Co-award winner Baba Dioum has built a name for himself around markets and trade in agricultural commodities. His work has contributed to policy developments promoting cross-border agricultural trade in West Africa.  So, it is with this in mind that I begin my interview with Mr. Baba Didoum, co-laureate of the 2019 AGRF Food Prize Winner.

Angle of the story: Looking at the Objectives of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) are as follows:

  • Create a single continental market for goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments; and thus pave the way for accelerating establishment of the Continental Customs Union and African Customs union.
    • Expand intra-African trade through better harmonisation and coordination of trade liberalisation and facilitation regimes and instruments across RECs and across Africa in general.
    • Resolve the challenges of multiple and overlapping memberships, and expedite the regional and continental integration processes.
    • Enhance competitiveness at the industry and enterprise level through exploiting opportunities for scale production, continental market access, and better reallocation of resources.

I then began the interview with Mr. Baba Didoum.

What next for Africa in the digital economy?

Baba noted there is a “low rate of exchange between among African nations”, noting it is only 10% among ECOWAS. He stated that the lack of infrastructure, communication and information is mainly the cause, and suggested the number-one mission should be building capacity of trading among each other.  Baba said that structures are set up, and the trade corridors are there.  So, first, we must explore trading with the neighbours.

For those readers who might be new to the vision of a CFTA, I provide a background here:

The 18th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union, held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in January 2012 adopted a decision to establish a Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) by an indicative date of 2017. The Summit also endorsed the Action Plan on Boosting Intra-Africa Trade (BIAT) which identifies seven clusters: trade policy, trade facilitation, productive capacity, trade-related infrastructure, trade finance, trade information, and factor market integration. The CFTA will bring together fifty-four [now 55] African countries, with a combined population of more than one billion people and a combined gross domestic product of more than US$3.4trillion.

So, it was in this context that I asked Mr. Didoum “How might Africa implement the CFTA?”

Having provided leadership in regional trade for decades, Baba was quick to reply.  “We need a regional perspective and look at regional markets. We need to ask: what can we exchange among us?  We need to work on comparative advantage.  Senegal is growing groundnuts and in Ivory Coast its cashew.   Trading means looking first at the [local] market needs.  What the market can accept. The new paradigm is market access.  Each of us must ask [in] what can you can invest and earn money?”

Baba continued: “Market access: market pull rather than sales push. Work on quality and yield.  You must first compete in your domestic market. Market access has four levels:

  • Regional
  • continental
  • International

We African countries need to be competitive at each level with economic free zones.

Reading other articles, I see you have the good habit of setting both short- and long-term goals? What knowledge, skills and abilities would you recommend for Africa’s youth?

Baba answered the question using young people as a metaphor for untapped energy.

“Energy: it can be human, animal, and can be mechanisation. The young population [of Africa] needs to be trained.  Give them the ability in each segment of agriculture.  Give them the (mental) energy for Land preparation to harvesting. So, how to train them?  The easiest thing is train them in the field.  For example, mechanisation. Who can repair all these materials?  These are new jobs.”

Baba continued:

  • “Harvesting (second) rice needs to use machinery. We need to know how they work.
  • Storage
  • Transporting
  • Branding

“All these are works we need to develop in our area. Young people need to be intensively engaged in this way.

“If you go now, you can find some pacote/‘street-hawkers’ in the street, just trying to survive with no way to invest in the long-term.  This is no way for investing in a wife and kids.  The powers that be have to provide social investments: health, water, electricity, basic needs and government needs in the rural areas.”

In response to being asked how to move forward the digitalisation technology agenda, Baba replied: “We can use training and apply it. Digital is easy now.  If you can read, then you can access any information.  We have indigenous sciences.  We can cross them with modern science.  Mixing all this capacity, we can come to something that is very helpful in the rural areas”.

Baba, having distinguished himself as not only a national leader in the Senegal mango sector but also a leader in West Africa regional mango trade, uses the mango sector to provide a practical example of how ECOWAS might take the lead in implementing CFTA.  Baba stated: “Europe grows mango in Spain.  The middle east grows mango in Israel.  West Africa should take a regional approach and use seasonality as an advantage.  The ECOWAS nations should come together on a regional basis, develop a common platform and harmonise to strategically buy at the right time, and price the products for the market”.

Baba speaks of regional advantage and regional strategy which supersede local national strategy.  This suggests that trade-offs are required between the nations.  “Africa will need to raise quality and capacity,” adds Baba. In closing, Baba offered: “We need concrete goals in specific sectors to achieve global high performance in specific markets.  We can focus on value-addition in dried-fruit, pulp and juice.  Finally, we need government to develop harbour and port infrastructure as well as packaging”.

He predicts that 8% annual growth in the West Africa mango sector is possible under the right strategic planning and executing.  So, here we conclude our story.  I can add from being privy to the World Bank-funded study for value addition in the mango sector, there are definitely opportunities for expansion of processing.

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