INVESTIGATION: Europe in Africa: The Price of Partnerships

Chicken market [Photo taken by Umar Isa Ladu]
Chicken market [Photo taken by Umar Isa Ladu]

“On the entry into force of this Agreement, all prohibitions or restrictions on imports or exports affecting trade between the two Parties shall be eliminated, with the exception of the customs duties and taxes and the fees and other charges…implemented through quotas, import or export licensing or other measures. No new measures shall be introduced.”

― Article 34, West Africa-EU EPA, December 3, 2014

With one million Africans estimated to be on their way to Europe via the Sahara-Mediterranean corridor, awareness is growing that curbing migration will only be possible if Africans can see a future for themselves where they were born. For too many, that is not the case. Both African and European leaders share the responsibility and might be on the brink of repeating the mistakes of the past, once more.

Paul Immanuel, 24, shivers while staring into the meagre bonfire that is being fed stolen pallets. The West African is one of the remaining men in Ghetto Ghana, a hidden community of Ghanaian tomato pickers on the outskirts of Cerignola town in South-east Italy. At the peak of the season, almost 800 Ghanaians shack up in three empty farms without windows, heating or electricity. At this moment, there are a few hundred left. Those who have been here for a while get a mattress inside, newcomers have to find an empty spot to pitch a tent between the chickens and puppies beside the mansion. In the mansion on the other side of the dirt road, a handful of Nigerian women run a bar and brothel.

The residents of Ghetto Ghana get up at 4:30 a.m. to be driven to the tomato fields. They are paid around three euros and fifty cents for a basket of 300 kilograms. Thirty tonne trucks leave for Eboli, a town near the city of Naples where hundreds of factories process the tomatoes to paste for export. One day of work in the scorching sun pays between 20 and 40 euros. Since winding up here after his arrival on Lampedusa, nine years ago, Paul Immanuel hasn’t left Ghana Ghetto. “Where can I go?” he asks sombrely. “Yes, it’s cold here in winter but I survive. At least, here, I have a roof over my head.”


The number of Ghanaians crossing the Mediterranean is rising. William Hanna, the European Union Ambassador to Ghana, was quoted widely earlier this year when saying that last year, 5,636 Ghanaians reached Italy by boat, almost a third more when compared to figures from the preceding year. Eurostat data show that from January until the end of September of 2017, 4,650 have already asked for asylum in Europe. Migration from Ghana is a peculiar case. There are no push factors like violence from Boko Haram as seen in the North-east of Nigeria, ethno-religious conflict in the Central African Republic or the mindless dictatorship in Eritrea. Nevertheless, the number of Ghanaian asylum seekers in Europe is higher than that of war-torn Libya; and in proportion to population, there are more Ghanaian migrants arriving in Europe than are Nigerians. Lacking any legal justification, many of them are denied asylum status. They are who politicians in Europe, sometimes derogatively call ‘fortune hunters’, with no reason to migrate but to look for a better future.

Paul Immanuel is one of these fortune hunters. He hails from Brong-Ahafo, as do many others in this Italian shanty. Many other tomato pickers come from Navrongo, in the northern part of Ghana. Ironically, these regions once were known as the tomato belts of the West African country. But shortly after the turn of the century, disaster struck.


In the midst of summer, Albert Adongo, 15, guides us around a wasteland on his father’s lush estate in Navrongo. “We used to grow tomatoes here,” he tells, “but all of a sudden we wouldn’t get any money for them anymore. My family survived, but many others had to leave and find other work.”

Local farmers in Navrongo and the region’s bigger capital city, Bolgatanga, have always blamed the ‘market queens’, women merchants from Accra that work as wholesalers and oversee trading outposts in the Ghanaian capital, south of the country.

“Some time at the end of the nineties, they left with our tomatoes and did not come back with the money,” says Ahmed Bogobiri, who owned tomato farms in Navrongo between 1976 and 2000. “After that period, they only did business with Burkinabe farmers on the other side of the border because they weren’t welcomed here anymore.”

Bogobiri and other farmers say the market queens even manipulated the price of tomatoes by sharing trade secrets with competitors across the border.

“By telling the Burkinabe at what exact time we planted our crops, they were able to harvest at the same time as we did, which made the prices drop,” he says.

The farmers organised demonstrations and took legal action, but the Ghanaian government remained silent, partly because ECOWAS agreements allows for the free movement of goods and people in the region. The judges could do nothing. A deadlock soon ensued.

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Trade experts and government officials in Accra knew of the Navrongo situation. But according to them, the market queens were not to blame. “Around the year 2000 something dramatic happened,” says Philip Abayori, president of the Ghana Agricultural Chamber of Commerce. “China started putting enormous quantities of tomato paste on the domestic market, driving our fresh tomato farmers out of business.”

According to figures by the Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO, there indeed was an import surge at the turn of the century. Between 1998 and 2003, the import of tomato paste rose by no less than 650 per cent. In those five years, the market share for domestic fresh tomatoes shrunk from 92 to 57 per cent. Imports reached such astronomical proportions that according to research done at the University of Ghana, in 2006 the country was the second largest importer of tomato paste in the world. But while China is often named as the bogeyman, FAO figures show that in 2006, nearly 40 per cent of the cans came from Italy. With generous subsidies from the European Union, Italian producers could cheaply dump their products on the Ghanaian market. In 2005 Oxfam calculated that 65 per cent  of the market price of the final product was covered by the European taxpayer, allowing for enormous discounts on the Ghanaian market.

Export subventions from the EU have since disappeared and agricultural subsidies have been drastically cut back. But in the meantime, thousands of farmers in Ghana went bankrupt. According to the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana, in 2006, more than 2,000 tomato farms had gone or were on the brink of bankruptcy in the Navrongo and Brong-Ahafo regions. In order to face competition head on, the government of Ghana, in 2007, invested in the reopening of a tomato paste plant in Pwalugu, near Navrongo. Due to a lack of spare parts, raw materials and especially profits, Pwalugu went bankrupt for a second time in 2009.

The sights of Navrongo changed drastically. Farmers who could afford it stayed in business by switching to rice. Some ended their lives. With massive job losses that resulted from the import surges ― according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, IFPRI, tomatoes change hands 25 times between the field and the plate― thousands started looking for a better future in the cities or even overseas. The fact that some of them or their children are now picking tomatoes in Italy is an ironic play of fate.


In neighbouring Nigeria, a similar situation has occurred this past year. As opposed to the Ghanaian case, here we found evidence of influence exerted by importers of tomato paste. A tomato factory owned by Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, stopped operation in April. The factory, which cost the business tycoon N4 billion to set up couldn’t keep up with the influx of cheap tomato paste from China and Europe. Besides the huge capital investment, the factory buys around 1,200 tonnes of fresh tomatoes per day from local farmers and directly employs 150 workers.

Abdulkareem Kaita, the managing director of Dangote Tomato Factory says a new policy that was supposed to protect farmers and other investors from foreign importers is under constant attacks by lobbyists who want a return to the status quo.

“The greatest challenge now is there are still efforts by some of these importers to ensure this policy doesn’t work,” Mr. Kaita explains. “These lobbyists would rather that the federal government [of Nigeria] reversed back the previous practice; which would give them access to foreign exchange and imports waivers which will be greatly at the detriment of the people who have invested in processing factories and the farmers who have been organised and trained to use improved seeds and inputs to grow tomatoes in large quantities to meet the local demand for fresh tomato and paste.”

Sani Yadakwari, the secretary of the Kano State chapter of the Tomato Growers Association of Nigeria, demands more government action. He says the only way to save jobs and keep the farms and factories running is an absolute ban of tomato paste through the country’s porous land borders. He had raised the same approach at a private audience in Abuja with Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (also head of the country’s economic advisory team) in late 2016, but the Aso Rock Villa rendezvous didn’t produce desired outcomes at the time.

But on April 7, the Nigerian Ministry of Trade and Investment announced a new policy on tomato, effective after 30 days. The new policy adopted price-based measures that were meant to stimulate national production of the crop. Among its highlights is the increase of tariff on imported tomato paste, up by 50 per cent and an extra levy of $1,500 per metric tonne of the concentrate.

In his small office in the commercial district of Kano, Mr. Yadakwari reasoned that the new measures were not drastic enough but he is hopeful that if the policy is fully implemented, the change his association has long been canvassing for might see the light of the day. “Part of the levy will come to us, tomato farmers, to develop local production and meet national demand,” he adds cheerfully. “Otherwise our business is not safe.”


In Ghana, cheap overseas produce and migration from rural areas to the metropolitan centres or abroad are now seen as the two sides of the same coin. During his speech at the UN General Assembly meeting in 2016, former Ghanaian president, John Mahama, explicitly referred to the link between migration and dumping, naming not tomato paste but frozen poultry imports as a cause for emigration to Europe.

“Some of the young Africans who hazard the desert and Mediterranean Sea to cross to Europe from my country are young poultry farmers or other entrepreneurs who sell their shops and undertake the journey because they can no longer compete with the tonnes of frozen chicken dumped on African markets annually,” he said.

There is some evidence to support his claim. Besides having been one of the nodal points of Ghana’s tomato belts, Brong-Ahafo is also the centre of Ghana’s failing poultry industry with a domestic production share of 30 per cent. At the same time, Brong-Ahafo has been identified as the region from which most of the illegal Ghanaian immigrants in Europe come from.

On the import of frozen poultry, Europe is again a designated culprit but this time around as a result of changes in consumer preferences in a developing Africa. First, the advent of industrial farming has caused a shift in how Europeans ― but also Americans and Canadians ― shop for grocery and by extension, eat. The rich countries of the world do not buy whole chicken carcasses anymore and consumers are well off to pay the same price for chicken breasts now as they would for a whole chicken decades ago. Instead of destroying the chicken offal, for producers it makes more economic sense to look for other markets, such as West Africa, where such poultry leftovers can be sold at prices that are impossible to beat despite the absence of EU subsidies in the case of European poultry products and import tariffs elsewhere. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2016 the retail industry sold imported chicken at three dollars per kilogramme. Domestic chicken was sold at a staggering $12.80/kg.

As with tomatoes, the poultry sector in Ghana suffered a loss of market share. A 2006 FAO-sponsored study reports that in 1990 all chickens consumed in Ghana were produced domestically. With an import quantity equal to 9.110 metric tonnes in 2000, the market share of domestic farmers had plummeted to 11 per cent. The 2017 Ghana Poultry Report compiled by the United States’ Foreign Agricultural Service estimates that this year, imports are again expected to increase to a staggering 158,000 tonnes.

“Only 3 per cent of chickens consumed in Ghana come from domestic producers,” Taiwo Adeoye, the president of the Animal Science Association of Nigeria, remarked at an industry conference organised by the seaside city of Cape Coast, Ghana in early August. Europe, the United States, Canada and Brazil are the main competitors for the poultry market in West Africa.

Experts warn, however, that the demand side should not be forgotten. Preferences in Ghana also play a role. To save time, Ghanaians prefer processed and packed chicken ― the way in which all poultry from overseas is imported. According to Vincent Amanor-Boadu, professor of Agribusiness at Kansas State University and author of a 2016 study on Ghana’s chicken industry, a mere 15 per cent of the Ghanaian broilers are processed and packed. The rest is sold on the live bred market, to be processed at home by hand.

In Nigeria, the region’s powerhouse and indeed Africa’s largest economy, changing lifestyles means more Nigerians especially working class urban dwellers in cities like Ibadan, Abuja, Owerri and Lagos now eat frozen chicken. In Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city, some consumers understand that frozen chicken, though is cheaper and easier to prepare might not enjoy the same quality as fresh carcasses of chicken. Mohammed Aminu, a civil servant and Kano resident says, “I prefer local birds because I don’t know for how long the frozen ones have been in cold storage which means it may have lost its original taste.”

Mr. Aminu frequents the Tarauni Market to buys live birds. Founded in 1984, it is Kano’s biggest market for agricultural produce. One of the poultry merchants in Tarauni, Garba Gola, 55, started his business 25 years ago as an apprentice who helped with de-feathering slaughtered birds. Mr. Gola says the market for poultry products is good but hoteliers tend to prefer frozen chicken whereas suya (a kind of kebab) vendors opt for live birds. Given that the city is right in the heart of the country’s Muslim-majority north, consumers also tend to prefer birds that are slaughtered according to Islamic principles.

There are no official figures of the amount of poultry consumed in the country, but local farmers estimate that their production can only meet about 30 per cent of demand. Even some of the largest producers in the country are owned by foreign investors. Although Nigeria placed an absolute ban on the importation of frozen poultry meat in 2003, porous borders and corruption by customs officials results in markets being flooded with poultry meat smuggled from neighbouring countries such as Benin and Togo. It is estimated that 80 per cent of imports including cars and frozen poultry that landed in the Port of Cotonou in Benin are destined for the Nigerian market.

Meanwhile, official figures from the Nigeria Customs Service reveal that 1,570 operations by enforcement inspectors between January 2015 and August 2017 led to the seizure of 387,151 cartons of frozen chicken that would have found its way into the market. This dire statistics show that smugglers are bent on circumventing the law to meet a high domestic demand for processed chicken. Still, it remains unclear to what extent corruption by customs officials enables smuggling since the same document also iterated a little over N2.5 billion naira as the ‘duty paid’ on frozen chicken within the same period. All efforts to get a response from the spokesperson of the Nigeria Customs Service that clarifies the anomaly in the document were to no avail.

1,000,000 JOBS?

Eddy Vinacour, poultry farmer and Greater Accra regional chairman of the Ghanaian Poultry Farmer Association sums up the damage done by imports: “We import 153 million birds every year. If we would be able to substitute this by domestic production, one million jobs would be created, from the corn and soy farmers to pharmacists, poultry farmers, feed millers, processors and personnel at the live bred markets. The poultry sector used to be the second biggest employer in the country.”

Ghana’s government has different instruments to protect its internal market. The most heavily discussed one is a total ban on frozen poultry imports.

“No responsible government would ever do this,” says Kwame Akuffo, Director of Animal Production at the Ghanaian Ministry of Agriculture, “Prices will go up and the poor won’t be able to buy poultry anymore. It’s impossible for us to meet local demand. How long will it take you to fill the gap?”

Mr. Akuffo says 14 years after Nigeria banned the importation of all frozen poultry imports the sector has barely made any progress.

“The only thing we can do is allow the status quo to exist and ramp up our local production,” Mr. Akuffo adds. “Between five and ten years we should be there.”

Vincent Amanor-Boadu at Kansas State University, however, doubts the practicability of Mr. Akuffo’s statement. “We should channel the revenue from import tariffs to investment for processing infrastructure so that local farmers can compete with imports,” he says. “But the last time I checked, revenue is flowing to the general budget. There are no plans for new investment in poultry.”


Mr. Amanor-Boadu’s observation is echoed by local poultry farmers. While not contradicting the connection between agro-economic turmoil and migration, some say their leaders are wrong to shift the blame to Europe, shunning their own responsibility. Import surges wouldn’t have led to dramatic losses in market share if not for the government’s inaction, they reasoned.

The poultry farm of the Vinacour brothers is located in the middle of a residential area in Tema, one hour east of Accra. “There used to be 157 chicken farms around here,” says John Vinacour.  John has been a poultry farmer for more than 30 years. “The last time I counted I didn’t get pass 50. All constraints come from the government. The government didn’t react when the frozen imports surged. All attempts have failed to make a policy for the poultry industry. We badly need a system so that we can become competitive with the foreign markets. As we are talking right now, there is no government policy backing our demand.”

The poultry farmer mentions other items on the long list of issues for which government aid is possible.

“It’s impossible for us to take loans because of high interest rates for farmers,” he says, “and we can insure our buildings but not our livestock because bankers fear for another outbreak of Avian Influenza.”

He argues that European governments are able to assist their farmers because there is a support mechanism. For instance, in Ghana, harvested corn is lost in transit because of bad roads. There is also the need to import organic fertilizers due to the lack of domestic options. Worse still, the quality of the drugs used to treat the diseases of poultry are questionable as are government-appointed veterinarians, whose numbers have declined over the last twenty years.

“No new generation is taking over from them,” he says.


While the poultry sector is quietly simmering away, in the beginning of this year, a new Migration Information Centre was opened in Sunyani, the capital of Brong-Ahafo, supported with a $3 million grant from the European Union. In April, President Nana Akufo-Addo chose Goaso, a small town south of Sunyani, to announce his ambitious “Planting for Food and Jobs” programme for the country’s economic revitalisation.

The plan provides financial and marketing incentives to restore the agricultural sector of the country. USAID, the World Bank and even the Canadian government have poured funds into the programme which according to the president should create 750,000 jobs. In his speech, President Akufo-Addo said the programme is the basis to make an end to the twin problem of young people leaving and seeking non-existent jobs in urban areas and ‘disgraceful’ imports from abroad.

There is reasonable doubt whether the plan will succeed. Only farmers with plots larger than five acres are eligible for support. Whereas the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana estimates that 80 per cent of all Ghanaian farmers own less than that. The 50 per cent discount on fertilizer is said to have caused a new smuggling trade with Togo where it is sold at a profit.


In the meantime, development practitioners and NGOs argue that the real turmoil for African economies looms ahead. And this time, there is no discussion about Europe’s responsibility. In Abuja, rights groups and trade unions campaigned vigorously last year against the EPA, lobbying Nigeria’s federal legislature, the National Assembly, to stop the country from signing the agreements.

“The EPA, if signed, will lead to a catastrophic destruction of Nigeria’s fledgling non-oil industries,” Ken Henshaw tells us in the Port Harcourt field office of Social Action, the group that organised the Abuja roundtable for Nigerian stakeholders.

It is noteworthy that negotiations between African leaders and the European Commission for the Economic Partnership Agreements were started 15 years ago but seem to have stalled. A deal with the ECOWAS bloc is still not in place ― Gambia, Nigeria and Mauritania refused to sign the deal last year. Unbowed, Europe has started negotiations with individual nations in a move that is widely seen as being reminiscent of the colonial ‘divide and conquer’ approach.

Such a pact was concluded last year with Ghana. Within a period of 20 years, import and export tariffs are expected to be eliminated step by step for 70 per cent of all produce. A list of sensitive products ― poultry, tomato, sugar, palm oil and cocoa are exempted from liberalization. But import tariffs will fall to zero per cent for milk powder and cereal in a few years. The elimination of the import tariffs will have direct consequences for the general budget of Ghana and in case of an import surge, the agreement deprives Ghana from the right to raise its tariffs, also for sensitive goods. According to opponents of the agreement, an encore of the chicken and tomato scenario with milk and cereal is possible.

Civil society groups, however, fear that the economic damage will not be limited to agriculture. They argue that Ghana will be flooded by cheap industrial products from Europe, taking away incentives for the development of home-grown industries.

“We need an African customs union”

Civil society groups are not alone in the campaign for better trade policies and practices. When it comes to the EPAs, they are backed by the highest level in European politics. Gunther Nooke, the German Chancellor’s personal representative in Africa, takes a stance against the European Commission and states that the EPAs are “not a partnership, nor an agreement.”

“The EPAs ultimately call for reciprocity,” he tells, “but reciprocity is not in the long-term interest of the EU. It cannot be our only interest to get our goods into Africa duty-free. If we really want people to stay and prosper in Africa, we have to do whatever we can to make sure they can work and make a living where they were born. [The EPA] will not allow their internal markets to flourish. Africa doesn’t have to open up to Europe just because we do so.”

While it is the content of the EPAs that will prevent African internal markets to flourish, it is the strategy of the European Commission that might have even more serious economic consequences. According to Mr. Nooke, widespread industrialisation is necessary in Africa to bring in more investment, better schools, industrial innovation, high-paying jobs, and purchasing power. This is impossible without a larger internal market in Africa.

“First, we need an African customs union. What the EPAs have achieved until now is that the negotiations for an African customs union have stalled because of differences in opinion on how to react to Europe’s proposed free trade deal. Due to the individual agreements ― as with Ghana ― it is now easier to trade with Europe than with their own neighbours. That’s crazy. It’s better to reinforce borders around Africa than to reinstall and reinforce borders between countries.”

With such resistance at the highest levels, all eyes are now on Abidjan, where in the end of November the EU-Africa summit will take place, and on Addis Ababa, where the African Union has said it will respect the December 1 deadline to establish the African customs union.

Meanwhile, 15-year-old Albert Adongo reflects on his future prospects in the sleepy town as the African sun hangs low on the wooded horizon. “How far is Europe? How easy is it for me to travel to Europe?” he asks. “Will there be a job for me there?”

Disclaimer: Although support for the investigation came from the Flanders Connects Continents programme of, the funders had no editorial oversight whatsoever in the course of the reportage.

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