COVID-19 Impact on Informal Trade: Disruptions to Livelihoods and Food Security in Africa

International trade of food and agricultural products plays a major role in ensuring food security and livelihoods across the African continent. Yet formal intracontinental trade data give only a glimpse of trade’s importance for African consumers and producers because—depending on the country and border—up to 99 percent of agricultural trade crosses borders informally. In West Africa, for example, an estimated 30 percent of staple foods evade formal customs, and the proportion can be much greater for highly perishable fruits and vegetables. Consequently, formal trade data paint only a limited picture of COVID-19’s disruptive effect on trade within the African continent—and of related nutrition and livelihood consequences. To better understand the current and future impacts on African food producers and consumers, we must examine both the magnitude and unique mechanisms of informal cross-border trade (ICBT). Africa has no continentwide system to monitor and quantify the magnitude of ICBT. However, shortterm initiatives by governments, development agencies, and other institutions have successfully estimated the extent of ICBT in some regions, including identifying which products are most commonly traded informally and which communities depend most heavily on ICBT. In this brief, we rely on data from three initiatives, conducted by the Comité permanent Inter-État de Lutte contre la Sécheresse au Sahel (CILSS), the Family Farming, Regional Markets and Cross Border Trade Corridors (FARMTRAC) project, and the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group (FSNWG). COVID-19 related restrictions have not affected formal and informal trade equally, and though incomplete data make it difficult to conclusively assess the impact, this brief examines insights from the available data and likely livelihood and food security impacts, based on what we know from previous ICBT trends.