In ordinary times, it takes Boureima Diawara two or three days to truck his mangoes the 1,200 km (745 miles) from southern Mali to Senegal’s seaside capital Dakar.
But since coronavirus restrictions came in, some shipments have taken more than twice as long. After struggling with border delays and a dawn-to-dusk curfew in Senegal, Diawara’s workers have ending up dumping sacks of rotten fruit in landfill.
Trading across borders in West Africa, with its rutted roads and bribe-hungry police, has never been easy. But restrictions imposed by governments in response to COVID-19 are crippling the trade in perishable goods and livestock like never before, according to commercial data and interviews with traders.
“If the trucks stop, the produce spoils,” said Diawara, whose traders’ collective slashed the number of trucks it runs to Dakar from up to nine a day to only one or two.
The breakdowns in trade are contributing to fears of a spiralling food crisis. The United Nations says the pandemic could cause the number of West Africans living in food insecurity to double to 43 million in the next six months.
While some countries have been able to rely on healthy pre-crisis stocks to keep the price of staples such as maize and rice relatively stable, more time-sensitive supply chains are fraying and legions of independent traders are taking the hit.
Data collected by the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS) shows West African traders of perishable produce and livestock have seen losses of 10% to 30% since health restrictions came in, as transport is disrupted and markets close while illegal tax collection at checkpoints has leapt nearly 50%.
A separate survey by Réseau Billital Maroobé, a collective of West African herders, showed economic activities were at a standstill for 42% of herders in the region as of last week.
The impact is not universal and some trade corridors have been less affected. But Brahima Cisse, a regional markets expert at CILSS, which has 13 member states and is based in Burkina Faso, said he had never before seen such broad-based losses.
“There is an entire disorganisation of the market that makes the impact unprecedented,” said Cisse. “People in rural areas don’t even know where to go to sell their products to survive.”
Much of West Africa’s food trade is conducted by small-scale traders hauling anything from sacks of yams to chickens, onions and bananas aboard public transport, or driving herds of cattle across borders.
Because of smuggling and patchy customs records, the vast majority of the commerce does not show up in official statistics, researchers say.
That informality makes it especially vulnerable to coronavirus restrictions, even when governments carve out exemptions for trade, said Antoine Bouet, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
“Very often, these measures consist in the screening of trucks crossing the border while movement of people is forbidden,” he said. “These measures stop informal trade of small quantities.”
Mauritania closed its border with Senegal, the main market for its livestock, in March. While merchandise is officially exempted, herders have not been allowed to move their animals across the border, Mauritania’s agriculture ministry said.
Traders on the other side of the continent face delays and blockages too.
Last week, the East African Grain Council said cargo volumes into some inland countries had fallen by more than half with tailbacks at the border between Kenya and Uganda stretching more than 50 km.
Certain corridors have been less affected. In Ivory Coast, the busiest route from the West African coast to interior, transporters have encountered few delays, said Ibrahim Diallo, an official with the national transporters’ association.
In recent weeks, some governments have started to ease restrictions in an effort to reduce the economic toll, including reopening some markets and shortening curfews.
Atsuko Toda, the African Development Bank’s director of agricultural finance and rural development, praised governments for eschewing policies like export restrictions that fuelled price spikes during the 2007-08 food crisis.
But traders remain anxious as they settle in for what the World Health Organization says could be a prolonged outbreak on the continent, even though it has so far avoided the exponential growth in cases and deaths elsewhere in the world.
For traders in Benin, the new coronavirus restrictions are simply compounding their pain, after neighbouring Nigeria closed its border in August to crack down on smuggling.
Benin’s government has now shut its four land borders in response to COVID-19 and while they remain open to commerce, traders say health checks have significantly slowed crossings.
“The security forces have complicated the checks and everyone is scared,” said Bella Agbessi, who exports pineapples to Togo. “I’m afraid we won’t be able to hold on for long.”