West African Futures: Settlement, Market and Food Security



OECD West African Studies, May 2013

Settlement dynamics have been reshaping West Africa’s social and economic geography. These spatial transformations – high urbanisation and economic concentration – favour the development of market-oriented agriculture. With the population of West Africa set to double by 2050, agricultural production systems will undergo far-reaching transformations. To support these transformations, policies need to be spatially targeted, improve availability of market information and broaden the field of food security to policy domains beyond agriculture. They need to rely on homogeneous and reliable data – not available at present – particularly for key variables such as non-agricultural and agricultural population, marketed production and regional trade.

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Executive Summary


Part I - Integrating spatial dynamics and food security issues

Part II - People, places and transformation dynamics

 Part III - Forward-looking Scenarios for Settlement and Agricultural Transformations to 2050

Part I - Integrating spatial dynamics and food security issues

The retrospective analysis of settlement and agricultural dynamics sheds light on the structural transformations underway. The developments and performances of the region are presented in graphs and maps with a brief assessment. The analysis is based on an economic geography approach, which integrates aspects of human density (linked with economic density), the location of economic actors and market access.

Chapter 1. A review of past trends on settlement, agriculture and food insecurity

Key messages

  • The demographic transition in West Africa is advancing, and it is accompanied by a spatial redistribution of populations. These settlement dynamics are shaping the economic, social and political trajectories of the region;
  • Urbanisation, a manifestation of these dynamics, has reached 41% at the regional level. The urban population increased by a factor of 20 between 1950 and 2010, from 6 million to 118 million, compared to a fourfold increase in the total population. The number of people born in cities has exceeded the number of people arriving from rural areas since the early 1980s. The continuing growth of urbanisation contributes to the integration of rural areas into the market economy;
  • Agricultural performance over the past 30 years puts the region’s countries among the world’s top performers. Per capita food production has grown by 1.9%. Import dependence remains low at the regional level;
  • Undernourishment and hunger have been declining since the 1990s. However, crises remain frequent, there are vulnerable groups and resilience is fragile.

Chapter 2. Economic geography and settlement dynamics

Key messages

  • Food security is one dimension of development. Economic geography, which links geography and interactions between economic agents, is a framework that can be used for analysing development;
  • Settlement concentration is a response to the economic, social and political transformations in West Africa, urbanisation is consubstantial with development. Policies need to accompany these evolutions and better integrate them in food security strategies;
  • Available population data – different definitions and methods, irregular censuses – do not allow for a regional analysis of settlement dynamics;
  • A spatial demo-economic model allows for the distinction of population characteristics – agricultural and non-agricultural, modern and informal – by spatial environments – rural and urban.

Part II - People, places and transformation dynamics

Spatial recomposition and economic change are the major transformations that are anticipated for this region. Urbanisation continues, although at a slower pace. Growth in the network of medium and small cities will be accompanied by the development of markets. This growth, along with increases in the population concentration in large cities, contributes to the restructuring of rural population settlement and agricultural transformations. The transition from subsistence to commercial agriculture implies a diversification of production systems and improved market connections.

Chapter 3. Spatial restructuring and economic transformations

Key messages
  • West African regional migrations show various temporal features – long, temporary, circular – and scales – internal and intra-regional. These migrations are people’s responses to changes in their environment;
  • West African migration systems are constantly evolving, contributing to demoeconomic transformations and regional construction. Policies should accompany these mobility processes;
  • Urban growth is manifested in the concentrations in the biggest cities and in the development of a network of small and medium-sized cities. This urban network constitutes the core of the spatial organisation of trade and markets. The average distance between urban agglomerations of more than 10 000 inhabitants has been divided by 3, from 111 km to 33 km;
  • The urbanisation process has also increased the heterogeneity of rural settlements. 58% of rural inhabitants live in high-density areas (more than 50 inhabitants per km²) covering only 20% of non-desert land area;
  • Rural areas with the highest density and best connections to cities are also more diversified local economies. 25% of the rural population is no longer engaged in agricultural activities;
  • Today, the non-agricultural population comprises 50% of the total population, a tenfold increase since 1950. This evolution also highlights the emergence of a market economy;
  • The food economy, along the entire value chain from producer to consumer, is predominantly informal. Understanding and accompanying its dynamics are crucial for current and future food challenges.

Chapter 4. Market dynamics and regional integration

Key messages
  • Over two thirds of household food demand is satisfied on the market. This demand translates into increased shares of marketed quantities in total production;
  • Producing a marketable surplus implies the emergence of complex trade-offs at the level of individual producers in terms of factors of production (land, labour and capital) and risks. The inherent complexity explains the graduality of the transition from subsistence to market-based agriculture and hence the existence of intermediary production systems;
  • Transformations of agricultural production systems are closely related to human and economic geography and hence spatially heterogeneous. Market connections (physical infrastructures, institutions and services) play a crucial role in the spatial configuration of markets and the evolution of production systems;
  • Maize quantities marketed in West Africa increased from 0.6 million to 4.8 million tonnes between 1980 and 2007. They increased twice as fast as production of maize;
  • Urban demand is the key parameter in spatialising intra-regional flows. Available food consumption surveys indicate significant underestimations of quantities marketed and trade flows;
  • Interdependencies created by the regional market affect production decisions, consumption behaviour and the reach of national policies. These interdependencies are not sufficiently integrated in food security analysis and policy formulation.

Part III. Forward-looking Scenarios for Settlement and Agricultural Transformations to 2050

Establishing a prospective vision of settlement dynamics contributes to designing forwardlooking food security policies. Driven by the region’s ongoing demographic transition and urbanisation dynamic, the rural-urban transformation will see the growth of the non-agricultural population and the stagnation of the agricultural population (in volume terms). The transformation of agricultural production systems will be characterized by the growth of average farm size and the concentration of food production. However, policy makers lack homogenous and reliable data on urban and rural, agricultural and non-agricultural, and formal and informal population as well as on food consumption, regional trade and agricultural land that are needed to better accompany these transformations.



Chapter 5. Population settlement projections

 Key messages

  • Although population growth is slowing, the demographic transition has not been completed. West Africa’s population will double between now and 2050. Policies accelerating the demographic transition would allow for benefiting from a demographic dividend;
  • West Africans’ adaptation strategy to the ongoing demographic, social and economic transformation remains migration from the Sahel to coast and cities – the share of extra-regional migration will thus remain small;
  • The urban population will reach 400 million by 2050; there will then be two urban dwellers for one rural. These facts call for a rethinking of food security strategies in terms of both urban and rural realities and space;
  • The town-countryside relationship needs to be understood as a continuum in which markets play a crucial role. Relations are facilitated by the characteristics of the area, places, networks, infrastructures and actors;
  • An active policy of limiting the level of urbanisation, assuming that is possible, would have negative impacts on the region’s economy, including farmers living standards;
  • Promoting resilient food systems necessitates urban planning and management that is favourable to developing economic activities, both formal and informal.

Chapter 6. The future of agricultural systems

Key messages

  • The agricultural population will begin to decline over the next 40 years. The ratio of the non-agricultural population to the agricultural population will be 3.5 in 2050, an increase of 250%, implying major transformations of agricultural systems;
  • Data on land availability and potential reveal significant discrepancies. The lack of precise definitions, particularly for pastures and permanent meadows, has led to overestimations of arable land in the Sahel;
  • Based on performance in past decades, a threefold increase in agricultural production appears feasible. This production increase will stem from an increase in the area harvested (1.3% annually) and significant improvements in yields (1.7% annually);
  • The evolution of agricultural systems will be dominated by two features: the specialisation of small and medium-sized farms in production destined for the market and the emergence of very large farms. This process will be accompanied by an increase in average farm size and the increased concentration of food production;
  • The agricultural transformations will be spatially and temporally diverse. Agricultural policies must be conceived and targeted at producers with different profiles, challenges and constraints;
  • The future of agricultural systems in West Africa will depend on improvements in the functioning of the common regional food market, the revival of regional co-operation regarding land rights and support for producers and agricultural investment.


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