Britain may have left the European Union (EU) as planned at the start of the year, but the much-anticipated uptick in trade between West Africa and the newly independent UK hasn’t got off to a flying start.
Just two days after the UK finally left the bloc, it slapped swingeing $130 per tonne tariffs on Ghanaian bananas, after the UK failed to roll over its old EU agreement with the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).
As a result, up to 4,500 jobs have been directly put at risk in the former British colony and Ecowas member, which exports 400 million tonnes of the fruit to the UK each year.
The levies on bananas and other goods have come as a blow to Ghanaian farmers, who had been promised greater access to the UK – which imports 45 per cent of its food – under a widely anticipated post-Brexit free trade agreement with Ecowas.
To underscore the importance of such trade deals, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson famously skipped last year’s important World Economic Forum in Davos to host more than a dozen African heads of state at the first-ever UK-Africa Investment Summit in London.
Deals worth nearly $8 billion were announced.
A year on, though, and insiders believe the Ecowas deal may already be dead on arrival.
It was recently revealed that Ghana and the Ivory Coast were discussing a secret bilateral trade agreement with the UK, unbeknownst to Ecowas’s other 13 members.
A similar move by the two countries in 2014 scuppered EU-Ecowas trade negotiations at the time.
Ken Ukoha, an international trade expert and president of the National Association of Nigerian Traders (NANTS), said the bilateral talks were a bad omen and a ‘stab in the back’ for other Ecowas members.
‘It is a complete sell-out,’ said the Nigerian, who thinks Ghana and Ivory Coast should face sanctions for undermining the talks.
‘If any member wants to do something with a country outside the enclave, there must be an agreement of all the 15 member countries.
‘Ecowas has the capacity to engage with the UK on any trade deal now that the UK is a standalone country,’ added Ukoha.
There may still be landing room for a deal, but it won’t be without its problems.
African producers will face stiff competition unless they are able to scale up and ‘standardise’ production, according to Professor Gabriel Ayum Teye, the vice chancellor of Ghana’s University for Development Studies.
Britain’s supermarkets are notoriously picky about what they will sell, rejecting fresh produce that doesn’t meet strict rules on look and uniformity, irrespective of its taste or quality.
‘You cannot export 100 tubes of yam and [mix small ones with] some that are like water bottles,’ explained Ayum Teye.
'If you are going to export, they have to be uniform. If somebody wants all the mangos to weigh 500 grams, it means you have to weigh them.’
Chika Onyejiuwa, Executive Secretary of the Brussels-based Africa-Europe Faith and Justice Network, believes Africa should be cautious about doing trade on the UK terms.
‘The nature of trade relations between Africa and these developed countries is structured in such a way that Africa will remain their source of raw materials,’ said the priest, whose organisation aims to promote fairer economic relations between Africa and Europe.
He welcomed attempts to strike deal with the UK but said negotiators needed to demand greater access for valuable ‘finished goods’, such as chocolate, rather than simply exporting the beans, as happens under the EU-Ecowas deal.
The 15 members of Ecowas are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.