Dutch Onions to Africa: Yes or No?

The Netherlands are dealing with a surplus of a 100 million kilos of onions. Agricultural producers are at a loss of what to do. ‘Send them to hungry Africans’, some say. It’s a sympathetic idea of people who mean well and want to solve problems. Whatever we have in abundance, there is not enough of in Africa. Shipping our overproduction then sounds like a logical solution. Or is it not?

Dutch Onions to Africa: Yes or No?

If only things were that simple. The shipping, clearing and subsequently transporting of produce to the communities that need assistance at this very moment is a far too costly operation logistically. Moreover, it is extremely complicated. Onions are perishable goods with little nutritional value. Locally, proper storage needs to be arranged, where the onions can be kept dry and cool. No easy task. Nor is this a sustainable investment, once supply stops in a few months’ time.

International agreements

Also, aid organizations have to adhere to international agreements. Food aid has to follow certain rules, for beneficiaries to be assisted equitably in an efficient and good manner. Products in food packages are carefully chosen and determined to optimally meet needs, with a balanced diet, recognizable products and sufficient calories, and largely prepared with local resources. The ingredients of this ‘emergency food aid basket’ can be conserved for a long time.

We have to be on our guard: what would be won in the short term, will be lost on the long term. Emergency relief can actually give additional economic impulse. That is why relief organizations buy their distribution supply locally and regionally as much as they can. To keep stimulating existing food production.

Dumped tomatoes

Dumping surpluses from European markets in the past has caused a lot of damage. I remember ICCO campaigning for fair trade ten years ago very well. Back then, parts of chickens and pigs, and subsidized tomatoes were dumped in West Africa. The market prices were so low, that hundreds of farmers and thousands of people lost their employment.

Aid and trade can sometimes be united and thus strengthen development. ICCO and Church in Action fully commit to providing emergency relief in those countries in Africa where people are currently suffering, among others with financial assistance of Giro555 and of the ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Dutch Relief Alliance. At the same time, we invest in the future.

Public Private Partnership

Lately we paid a visit to Mali, where ICCO runs a public-private partnership to improve the value chains of fish and onions. We had a conversation with Mamadou Coulibaly, the technical leader, who supervises a test site for seed and fertilizers. He spoke passionately about the impact he expects from the project for the local and even national economy: fewer imports, and more jobs and income for the farmers and their families. It was inspiring to meet this young man and see how ICCO can make things happen.    

The efforts of Dutch companies for people in need are admirable and it is good that they are taking responsibility. As partner of enterprising people, ICCO gladly helps to direct that energy and motivation in such a way that they will indeed contribute towards a better world.

Marinus Verweij, chair ICCO Cooperation.

Author Marinus Verweij
More articles by Marinus Verweij