April 23, 2021

By Phillip Okungu, ARSO

INTERNATIONAL and the African Organisation for Standardisation (ARSO) have announced that they have signed a Memorandum of Understanding establishing a strategic partnership to advance food safety and security in Africa.

Feeding 1.5 billion people by 2030 and 2 billion by 2050 is the daunting challenge that Africa intends to meet. The objective for the coming decades is to ensure food security for a population that is increasing and becoming more urbanized; helping to create wealth and jobs, in rural areas in particular; reducing inequalities and vulnerability; and protecting environmental and human capital[MH1] .

Already, Africa is experiencing rapid expansion of the agri-food market fueled by high population growth, rapid urbanization and income growth.  Intra-African food demand is projected to increase by 178 percent by 2050; and the net food import bill, currently standing at over USD $35 billion a year, is projected to reach USD $110 billion by 2025.

According to the to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food security is “the basic right of people, at all times,  to have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” This is one of the greatest challenges facing the world community.

This was reaffirmed in the 1996 FAO World Food Summit in Rome, as heads of state and governments committing themselves to eradicating hunger in all countries, with the immediate goal of halving the number of undernourished people by 2015.

One step ahead, the African Heads of State made more commitments towards food security in Africa in June of 2014 at the 23rd Ordinary Session of the African Union Assembly. The theme of the meeting was “Transforming Africa’s Agriculture for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods through Harnessing Opportunities for Inclusive Growth and Sustainable Development.” This also marked the tenth Anniversary of the Adoption of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP).

Despite overall gains in food production and food security on a global scale, agricultural trade continues to be affected by Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT). These include standards, technical regulations, conformity assessment, accreditation and metrology. The World Trade Organization (WTO), in its TBT/SPS Agreements Policy Objectives, cites these within the context of the obligation to protect human, animal and plant health as well as environment, wildlife and human safety.

The ability to comply with formal standards has thus become an important factor in determining access to international markets and, more broadly, the capacity of countries to export and involve smallholder farmers in commercial supply chains.

While agricultural tariffs in Africa have come down substantially in the past years, differences in agricultural trade and standardization policies among the Africa’s Regional Economic Communities (RECs) remain. The persistence of TBTs has presented a substantial obstacle to increasing intra-regional and intra-African trade in food staples, thus aggravating the food security and safety issues in Africa.

The need for a common regulatory framework through harmonized standards and conformity assessment procedures together with mutual recognition arrangements remains key to Africa’s food security and safety. Key among these is the WTO TBT international policy for “one standard, one test, one certificate accepted everywhere,” for the operations of African Single Market.

With its backward and forward linkages opportunities, agriculture forms a significant portion of the economies of all African countries. It is at the center of major continental priorities, policy and agendas for the eradication of poverty and hunger, boosting of intra-Africa trade and investments, rapid industrialization and economic diversification, sustainable resource and environmental management, and creating jobs, human security and shared prosperity.

However, post-harvest losses and poor storage, together with Aflatoxins issues, remain a major threat to food security and safety and to agricultural trade in Africa. Contaminated food continues to cause numerous devastating outbreaks in the African region, and food safety related problems still account for almost 2,000 fatalities on the continent daily. The WTO reports that foodborne hazards are responsible for 137,000 deaths and 91 million acute illnesses in Africa every year, mostly affecting children under the age of five.

The multiple food safety challenges in Africa include  inadequate lab testing capacity to identify food safety risks; low levels of investment and compliance with international standards and weak monitoring and enforcement of such regulations by governments; a lack of sufficient incentives for the private sector to engage in formal trade; and lots of informal, unregulated trade in local markets with poor quality infrastructure.

Enforcement of mandatory minimum food safety rules by public sector institutions will remain necessary. Relevant regulatory agencies will require the capacity and resources to establish and implement appropriate food safety laws and regulations, and there will be a need to include alignment and equivalence of national standards, laws, and regulations with internationally accepted food safety standards and practices, including the CODEX-FAO standards.

Cooperation between ARSO and AOAC INTERNATIONAL is therefore key to increased synergies, support and cooperation to scale up activities and raise awareness of how coherence in standards and regulatory frameworks can promote agricultural trade to ensure food security and safety in the continent.

ARSO (www.arso-oran.org), with a current membership of 40 African countries, is an intergovernmental standards organization established by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU,) currently African Union (AU)) together with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in 1977 to promote Standardisation and Conformity Assessment and the related activities in Africa with the aim of facilitating intra-African and international trade. Its mandate is to develop tools for standards development, standards harmonization and implementation to enhance Africa’s internal trading capacity, increase Africa’s product and service competitiveness globally, and uplift the welfare of African consumers. It also serves as a standardization forum for future prospects in international trade referencing. Currently ARSO harmonizes standards and conformity assessment procedures under 15 Sectors with 82 Technical Committees. The Agriculture and Food Products Sector includes 23 Technical Committees with experts from all over Africa.

ARSO is a signatory to the World Trade Organization’s Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) agreement (in reference to Annex 3 on the Code of Good Practice for the Preparation, Adoption and Application of Standards). Since 2015, ARSO has been an active observer member of the WTO TBT Committee in its work towards harmonization, equivalence and mutual recognition arrangements for agriculture and food products meant to promote intra-African and Global trade.

The cooperation between ARSO and AOAC comes at a crucial time, when Africa has entered into a new phase with better prospects for addressing food security, safety and trade under the AfCFTA Agreement. The 2018 formation of the African Continental Free Trade Area, which includes 54 of the 55 African Union nations and requires members to remove tariffs from 90 percent of goods, is bringing a rapid increase in trade of food. This agreement entered into force on 30 May 2019; the operational phase launched on 7 July 2019, and real trading under the AfCFTA Agreement started on 1 January 2020.

The AfCFTA has been ratified in 36 countries, with another 54 signed up as of 5th February 2021. Prioritizing Made in Africa Products, it is set to increase intra-African trade – at 15 percent the  lowest among world regions – by 52.3 by eliminating import duties, and to double this trade if non-tariff barriers, especially the TBTs, are also reduced (UNECA 2018). This will contribute significantly to increased competitiveness of Africa’s industrial products through harnessing the economies of scale of a large continental market. By increasing the rate of diversification and transformation of Africa’s economy and the continent’s ability to supply its import needs from its own resources, it can better integrate the continent into the global economy so as to participate in and share the benefits of an increasingly connected global marketplace.

A known challenge under the AfCFTA Agreement is the enormous disparities in food testing infrastructure and differences in food safety and sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS), rules and regulations for food staples across the continent’s RECs and countries. This is despite many having similar agro-ecological conditions for pests and diseases, and similar demands on food safety.

While an effective standards system is critical to a market based agricultural system open to trade, the absence of common standards and the lack of capacity to ensure compliance with regulations is a major barrier to trade.  This means that, in Africa, food staple imports must often meet different food safety and SPS declarations between importing countries. In some countries, labs are well equipped, using advanced techniques and international official reference methods. In others, labs are struggling to achieve basic proficiency, making Agricultural Trade in Africa contentious and costly.

While increased trade and closer economic cooperation between developing countries can bring development, realizing this potential presents a major challenge especially in terms of an effective continental standardization infrastructure. There is therefore the need, through cooperation, to take advantage of the opportunities provided under AfCFTA Agreement, NTBs Annex 5, TBT Annex 6 and SPS Annex 7, which provide for provisions for cooperation in addressing the anticipated challenges associated with TBTs Annex 6, Article 3, in which the countries have reaffirmed their obligations and rights under the WTO TBT/SPS Agreements in terms of achieving their regulatory Policy Objectives with respect to the protection of human, animal and plant health, as well as human and environmental safety.

This means that different food safety standards and mandatory regulations set by governments to meet their objectives regarding health, safety, and the environment, and for market-driven standards, set within the private sector, might continue to hamper formal agricultural trade flows. Differences in standards will often be compounded by a lack of access to testing and inspection services, fully equipped laboratories and lack of mutual recognition arrangements.

It is against this background that in 2018, at the inaugural meeting of the newly formed AOAC INTERNATIONAL Sub-Saharan Africa Section, scientists identified a set of recommendations to advance development and harmonization of analytical methods, including prioritizing validated analytical methods for traditional African foods, public-private dialog on food safety capacity building, and collaboration with regional stakeholders such as ARSO.

Since then, the AOAC Sub-Saharan Africa Section has established itself as a key player in the region and has been invited to collaborate with numerous pan-African quality infrastructure organizations such as ARSO and the Intra-African Metrology System.

“AOAC INTERNATIONAL can play a critical role in providing technical and scientific advice on analytical testing standards, especially for many of the local food commodities now being traded beyond national borders, and within the 39 member States of ARSO,” said ARSO Secretary-General, Dr. Hermogene Nsengimana. “This collaboration agreement is a significant step to realizing these goals.”

Already, it is anticipated that standards to be harmonized by ARSO is comparable to the 4,547 HS6, Tariff lines for the AfCFTA, under the TBT Annex 6, article 6,a, where ARSO has been mandated to develop the required standards to facilitate trade between State Parties, where relevant international standards required to facilitate trade does not exist.

Cooperation between the two organizations will include areas such as conformity assessment regimes in traditional African foods; capacity building; peer reviews and idea exchange; and development and harmonization of standards in foods and beverages, dietary supplements, and infant formula, industrial chemicals and fertilizers.

The agreement also envisions development or expansion of laboratory proficiency testing to include regionally specific commodities and their reference materials. In addition to jointly promoting awareness among policy makers and governments on the need for standardization such as Performance Tested Methods and infrastructure, the agreement establishes a forum for joint public-private high-level dialog including webinars and training.

“AOAC’s Official Methods of Analysis are respected worldwide and can be used with confidence by industry, regulatory agencies, research organizations, testing laboratories, and academic institutions,” said Erin Crowley, President of AOAC INTERNATIONAL. “We look forward to working with ARSO to expand our stakeholder network in Africa while increasing use and improving access of AOAC Official Methods across the African Continental Free Trade Area, in recognition of the fact that the scope of AfCFTA is large, as it also covers policy areas such as trade facilitation and services and regu­latory measures with regards to sanitary standards and technical barriers to trade.”

 [MH1]We must have a source if we have a quote.