Jan Nijhoff, program coordinator of Michigan State University’s COMESA program. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Jan Nijhoff would make a good professor. As I sat in his office at the headquarters of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in Lusaka, Zambia, listening to him talk about his work, I was amazed at how good he was at explaining the economics of agriculture.
Jan is program coordinator of Michigan State University’s COMESA program. MSU has been working in Africa with government research institutes and regional economic groups for the past 30 years, “dissecting the agriculture sector” and advising how to improve trade and identify the best investment opportunities, explains Jan.
COMESA’s mission is to promote regional economic integration through increased cooperation and integration of trade, customs, transport, communication, technology, energy, and gender, as well as agriculture, environment, and natural resources. It represents more than 400 million people across 19 member states: Burundi, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Jan compared COMESA to the European Union; while the COMESA nations don’t have a common currency like the EU, they have come together to organize a regional economic market, the first of its kind on the continent.
MSU is working with COMESA specifically on agriculture, trade, and infrastructure programs, particularly investment in corridor development to help facilitate the trade and movement of goods—mainly agricultural products—between countries in the region. They’re also working to harmonize trade and agricultural standards in eastern and southern Africa. For example, seed varieties tested in Zimbabwe (a COMESA nation) currently can’t be sold to other countries in the region. By harmonizing agricultural regulations, COMESA/MSU hopes to improve the availability of inputs for farmers and agro-dealers, increase agricultural production, and improve access to markets.
COMESA/MSU also helps countries deal with agricultural trade disputes, helping them resolve bans on beef, milk, sugar, and other imports. Before COMESA/MSU was established, agriculture was never discussed at regional trade meetings, even though agricultural products make up the bulk of trade in eastern and southern Africa.
In addition, COMESA/MSU is doing something important for the donor and funder communities. Through its Guiding Investments for Sustainable Agriculture Markets in Africa (GISAMA) project, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, COMESA/MSU is helping funders determine where their money should go. They’re looking at things like the structure of commodity markets, as well as dissecting agricultural value chains to identify investment opportunities and needs. Through research done by both MSU and African researchers, COMESA/MSU will provide a “more evidence-based foundation for grants,” says Jan.
Ultimately, COMESA’s goals around agriculture are to increase productivity and stimulate the links between agriculture and the private sector. I’ve visited several projects that place emphasis on the business of agriculture, but COMESA’s has a distinct advantage that NGOs and development agencies don’t: access to agricultural and trade ministers in the region and the ability to directly influence policy.
According to Jan, more open markets and freer trade aren’t something that Africa’s farmers or politicians should fear, but something they should embrace. There’s a need, he says, for more public-private partnerships that give fair prices to farmers and consumers—and this, according to COMESA, requires opening borders and encouraging trade between countries.
What do you think? Stay tuned for more about COMESA/MSU later this week.