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Technical Cooperation Programme

Protecting plants and food security in Central Africa


Until recently, the capacity of Central African countries to prevent the spread of plant disease and pests from imported food and planting materials, such as seeds, stem cuttings and tubers, was weak. In fact, many countries had not updated their phytosanitary regulations in 50 or 60 years. 

But as seen with the banana bunchy top virus or papaya mealybug or cassava mosaic disease, harmful plant organisms can move quickly from country to country, diminishing food production and biodiversity, curtailing trade and making it difficult for farmers to earn a living. 

Such concerns prompted the region's two economic communities − ECCAS and CEMAC* − to call on the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for technical assistance. 

FAO launched a Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP) project to strengthen the Central African countries' ability to prevent risks and manage outbreaks. The two-year project also assisted the countries in revising national phytosanitary regulations to meet current international standards on agricultural trade. 

Assessing strengths and weaknesses

The TCP team first analysed the strengths and weaknesses of the National Plant Protection Organizations in Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tomé and Principe. 

All of these countries, except Angola and DRC, had signed the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) − a treaty that fosters international cooperation on controlling plant pests and preventing their movement across borders. 

But when it came to applying the convention's provisions, said Sankung Sagnia, a plant production and protection officer in FAO's subregional office in Gabon and the TCP's lead technical officer, "there was almost nothing on the ground."

"The countries were very weak in terms of human resources, training and intervention capacity," he added. "So capacity building was our starting point."

Strengthening capacity

The project trained lawyers to help the countries review and revise their national plant protection regulations to bring them up to speed with the IPPC and the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. 

Having updated laws and regulations is one thing. Being able to apply them is another.

"The borders are porous and phytosanitary control stations are poorly equipped and understaffed," said Alphonsine Louhouari, a plant protection officer from the Republic of Congo who was trained by the project. "And the knowledge on how to monitor and report pests is outdated."  

The project team trained 80 plant protection agents on the phytosanitary capacity evaluation tool (PCE), which identifies gaps and shortcomings in capacity as well as action needed to overcome them. 

Based on this diagnosis, six of the countries − Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, DRC, Gabon and Chad − developed national phytosanitary capacity strategies. A subregional strategy was also created.

"Our phytosanitary laws in the Republic of Congo dated back to 1952," Louhouari said. "But now we have new ones in accordance with the IPPC, a national strategy with action plans and high-level officials who have a better understanding of the importance of plant health and its impact on food security." 

"I really feel we are well-equipped now to lead a plant protection project, whatever its nature," she added. 

The TCP also trained agents on standard setting, and ten editors on maintaining the International Phytosanitary Portal, an information exchange tool.

United by common goals

The project succeeded in bringing the countries together around the common goals of plant protection and regional food security. 

Whereas before each country worked separately, Sagnia said, "the plant protection agents now exchange information regularly, also with the lawyers who reviewed their national regulations."

And they now have a robust presence in the Commission on Phytosanitary Measures, organized by the IPPC each year in Rome − a departure from before when there was hardly any representation from Central African countries. 

"Since the project, they participate consistently in these big international fora and defend the position of Central Africa in terms of phytosanitary problems," Sagnia said. 

Building on momentum

Negotiations are under way with CEMAC on a USD 1.2 million project that would build on the achievements of the TCP. And the Swiss Government is funding plant protection projects in Cameroon and Gabon, based on information generated by the project. 

"We are moving in the right direction," Sagnia said. "But it's a big challenge because while there are official entry points along the borders, there are hundreds of kilometres that aren't controlled, where people can pass informally without declaring any of these plant materials." 

That's why continued awareness raising and training are so important − for plant protection agents, phytosanitary border inspectors and farmers. 

"In a new TCP we have on the banana bunchy top virus, a serious threat in the region, we are sensitizing farmers on how to deal with the movement and exchange of planting material, how to recognize disease symptoms and how to destroy infected material," Sagnia said. "And we're helping them to really understand what the consequences would be for their own crops if the disease were introduced." 

* Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC)

FAO's TCP projects are targeted, short-term catalytic projects that leverage FAO's technical expertise to address specific problems in agriculture, fisheries, forestry and rural livelihoods among FAO Member countries, producing tangible and immediate results in a cost-effective manner.