Over the last few years, the Burundian government implemented a range of harmful protectionist measures. The latest wave of anti-trade policies began in 2016 when officials decided to make it illegal to export many food products. In 2019, importing chemical fertilisers was banned; in 2021, importing corn seeds and flour was prohibited. Unfortunately, importing other vital products like sugar and cement had been illegal for years.
While the Burundian government claimed these protectionist policies would protect domestic industry and boost economic growth, in reality, these policies hurt the economy and, in turn, harmed millions of Burundians. No country can thrive under protectionism, but the consequences were particularly dire in Burundi, where average incomes are a little over $700 per year. As the price of food and other goods rose, food insecurity and malnutrition increased, businesses could not operate at full capacity, and shortages of many goods became widespread.
In the words of Dr Franck Arnaud Ndorukwigira, Editorial Manager at CDE Great Lakes (an IATP-partner think tank based in Bujumbura, Burundi), “faced with growing protectionism, the CDE Great Lakes in partnership with IATP, stood up to defend trade openness and free trade.”
With the IATP’s support, CDE Great Lakes began a mass campaign to alert public opinion and political decision-making to the immense economic harm caused by protectionism. Through articles, events, workshops, book distributions, policy briefs, and more, policymakers, academics, entrepreneurs, journalists, students, and other members of civil society became better informed about the immense benefits of greater trade liberalisation.
Through meeting with government officials, CDE Great Lakes was able to share its research with various policymakers and representatives from the Ministry of Trade. After a few months, the CDE Great Lakes team were invited to discuss the need for greater trade liberalisation with the Minister of Trade, Industry, and Tourism.
Thanks to CDE’s work, public opinion began turning against the protectionist trade policies. Last year, some ministers began championing the policy proposals put forth by CDE Great Lakes in the Council of Ministers (the senior level of the Burundian government’s executive branch). Months of debate followed, but eventually, policymakers made a decision.
In recent months, the Burundian government formally announced that it had overturned the ban on importing; sugar, fertiliser, corn seeds, flour, and cement. This policy change has already resulted in reduced food price inflation. Farmers can finally grow their crops using fertiliser again, and Burundi’s shortage of sugar and cement is almost over. Similarly, CDE Great Lakes have already documented that many domestic businesses have expanded operations inside and outside the nation thanks to being able to trade more freely with the rest of the world.
The ban on exporting many food products has also been gradually overturned, and as part of our joint project, CDE Great Lakes has succeeded in helping to ensure many foodstuffs are exempt from a harmful 1.5% tariff that applies to many goods entering Burundi. On March 30, 2023, the Burundian government formally announced food products such as dry beans, rice, corn flour, sugar, cassava, and corn kernels would be exempt from the tariff.
Dr Franck asked that I share this message with all supporters and followers of the IATP: “Thank you enormously because this impact will revolutionise the economic life of Burundians [and] was possible thanks to your funding and partnership.”
We want to congratulate the indefatigable CDE Great Lakes team for helping make Burundi a more open and economically free place, which in turn has improved the lives of millions of their fellow citizens. They are an inspiration for us all at the IATP. We are also incredibly grateful to our donors, without whom this project and subsequent policy change would not have been possible.
Alexander C. R. Hammond
Alexander C. R. Hammond is the Director of the Initiative for African Trade and Prosperity, a Free Trade Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, and a Senior Fellow at African Liberty.