Gluttony of monopolies is driving food prices up in Africa

Because of low wages, Africans already spend a huge amount of their income on food, but the absence of consumer protection is resulting in a crisis, writes Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli.

A child walks past fish at the Abobo market in Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast. Four of the world’stop five countries, in terms of food expenditure, are in Africa.

In May, global food prices increased 1.2%, to their highest level since October, 2017.

This upward trajectory is having a disproportionate impact in Africa, where the share of household income spent on food is also rising.

To ensure food security, governments must reverse these trends, and they can start by policing the producers who are feeding the frenzy.

According to data compiled by the World Economic Forum, four of the world’s top five countries, in terms of food expenditure, are in Africa. Nigeria leads, with a staggering 56.4% of household income spent on food in 2015, followed by Kenya (46.7%), Cameroon (45.6%), and Algeria (42.5%).

Consumers in the US spend the least globally (6.4%), far less than people in emerging economies, like Brazil (16%) and India (30%).

One reason for the distortion is the price of food relative to income. As Africa urbanises, people are buying more imported, semi- or fully processed foods, which cost more than locally produced foods. And, in most countries, wages have not kept pace with inflation.

But the primary cause is poor public policy: African governments have failed to curb the power of agri-businesses and large food producers, a lack of oversight that has made local agriculture less competitive. In turn, prices for most commodities have risen.

The absence of anti-trust laws, combined with weak consumer protection, means that, in many countries, only two or three major companies control markets for items like salt, sugar, flour, milk, oil, and tea.

The impact is most pronounced in African cities, where prices for white rice, frozen chicken, bread, butter, eggs, and even carbonated soft drinks are at least 24% higher than in other cities around the world. These prices hit consumers both directly and indirectly (owing to pass-through of higher input costs by food conglomerates and service providers).

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has long-argued that food security and fair pricing depend on markets that are free from monopolistic tendencies.

The OECD concurs, and has frequently called on authorities to address “anti-competitive mergers, abuse of dominance, cartels and price-fixing, vertical restraints, and exclusive practices” in the food sector. And yet, in many African countries, this advice has rarely been heeded.

To be sure, this is not a new problem. Between 1997 and 2004, for example, the FAO counted 122 allegations of “anti-competitive practices” in 23 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Violations included a “vertical monopoly” in the Malawi sugar sector, price-fixing in Kenya’s fertiliser industry, and a “buyer cartel” in the Zimbabwean cotton industry. And, despite the considerable attention such cases have received, the underlying problems persist.

According to the World Bank, more than 70% of African countries rank in the bottom-half globally for efforts to protect “market-based competition.” While 27 African countries and five regional blocs do have anti-trust laws, enforcement is rare.

The remaining countries have no regulations and have made little progress in drafting them.

There is one notable exception: South Africa. Since 1998, the country’s Competition Act has prohibited any company that controls at least 45% of the market from excluding other firms or seeking to exercise control over pricing.

Violators face penalties of up to 10% of their earnings, and some of the biggest companies in the country — including Tiger Brands, Pioneer Foods, and Sime Darby — have been penalised.

As Tembinkosi Bonakele, head of South Africa’s Competition Commission, noted last year, the government is “determined to root out exploitation of consumers by cartels,” especially in the food industry.

Other countries should follow South Africa’s lead. Companies and special-interest groups will always seek to benefit from the absence of regulation. The need for reform is greatest in countries like Nigeria and Ghana, where food expenditures are high and food-industry pressure is most pronounced.

Fortunately, there is recognition of the need to address these challenges. Babatunde Irukera, director general of the Consumer Protection Council in Nigeria, recently said that, “in a large, vibrant and loyal market, such as Nigeria, the absence of broad competition regulation is tragic. Unregulated markets in competition context constitute the otherwise ‘legitimate’ vehicle for both financial and social extortion.”

Reducing the prices of staple food by even a modest 10% (far below the average that premium cartels around the world charge), by tackling anti-competitive behavior in these sectors, or by reforming regulations that shield them from competition, could lift 270,000 people in Kenya, 200,000 in South Africa, and 20,000 in Zambia out of poverty. Such a policy would save households in these countries over €600m a year, with poor households gaining disproportionately more than rich ones.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of political leaders to protect consumers from collusion and price-fixing. There is no question that Africa’s businesses need space to innovate and grow, but their success should never come at the cost of someone else’s next meal.

Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli is co-founder of AACE Food Processing & Distribution, managing partner of Sahel Consulting Agriculture & Nutrition, founder of LEAP Africa, and a 2018 Aspen Institute New Voices fellow.

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