Voluntary Sustainability Standards in East Africa

Author: Laura Turley, Steffany Bermudez, Vivek Voora, Ann Wilkings, and Sara Elder

Agriculture is an economic pillar in East Africa, employing as much as 80% of the population and representing 25% of GDP. Expanding the sector has great potential to improve livelihoods and bring widespread prosperity to people in the region.

Partner States of the East African Community (EAC)—Burundi, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo,* Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda—are pursuing regional agricultural objectives, as defined in policies developed by the EAC, that seek to:

  • Maintain and increase agricultural productivity
  • Overcome trade barriers to improve intraregional trade
  • Build resilience to climate change.

IISD’s State of Sustainability Initiatives’ first regional report, Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSSs) in East Africa, shows that adopting standards to produce staple crops like beans, maize, rice, and wheat can help achieve these regional policy objectives while protecting vital ecosystems, managing scarce resources efficiently, and supporting workers’ livelihoods and rights.

There is a great opportunity to use VSSs to sustainably increase the production and trade of staple crops in East Africa. Importantly, smallholder farmers stand to benefit from this growth—they form a large part of the supplier base and depend on staple crops for livelihoods and personal consumption. At the same time, such growth will reduce import dependency in the region.

Our research shows that sustainability standards can:

  • Incentivize climate-resilient practices, such as improving soil quality, using water more efficiently, integrating agro-forestry practices, and facilitating ecosystem restoration.
  • Help increase productivity among staple crop producers—for instance, by improving crop handling and storage practices so farmers can deal with mould contamination that threatens crops and by supporting access to high-quality inputs and related training.
  • Facilitate intraregional trade by encouraging producers to comply with relevant laws and regulations and by encouraging alignment between other standards and best practices—for instance, through their criteria on managing pests, disease outbreaks, and targeted chemical use.

Accordingly, we include recommendations for VSS bodies, the EAC, and its Partner States to support the use of standards to achieve sustainable agricultural growth in harmony with nature and communities.

Recommendations for VSS bodies:
  1. Use pilot projects to build evidence to showcase how standards can be adapted to local and regional conditions and benefit farmers.
  2. Partner with processors, distributors, buyer groups, retailers, and consumer associations to create demand for VSS-compliant products.
  3. Prioritize access to certification for farmers by adapting schemes to local contexts and offering step-based approaches to certification.
  4. Harness information technology to encourage farmers to adopt more sustainable and resilient practices, such as for seed quality checks and product traceability.
  5. Increase awareness and training opportunities on VSS-compliant practices with key participants in agricultural value chains such as personnel in national standards bureaus, border control officials, transport professionals, and buyers.
Recommendations for policy-makers in the EAC and its Partner States:
  1. Demonstrate political commitment to, and recognition of, VSSs operating in the region through EAC processes, events, and agricultural policy forums.
  2. Clearly communicate which standards will be supported in the region.
  3. Provide targeted support for agricultural VSSs by:
    • Creating grant programs for farmers to cover compliance costs.
    • Facilitating coordination between standards bodies and key actors such as national standards bureaus, buyers, and investors.
    • Generating demand with sustainable public procurement.
    • Investing in research and pilot projects to explore how VSS compliance can help producers meet product quality and safety standards.

* This research was conducted before the Democratic Republic of the Congo officially joined the East African Community in March 2022.