Do African commodities exchanges achieve the desired results?

The Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) was set up with backing from the Ethiopian Government. In a very readable 2012 paper by the founder and first CEO Eleni Gabre-Madhin outlining the origins, aims and implementation of ECX, she mentions the Government backing in replacing laws so that trade in commodities including coffee (which makes up 35% of Ethiopia’s exports from 2000-2014), has to go through the exchange, and the determined resistance from those who had previously dominated the export trade.

Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (photo from

She mentions funding: “Five initial donors — the US Agency for International Development, the Canadian International Development Agency, the World Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the United Nations Development Programme — committed US$9.2 million in just two weeks. This figure grew over the years as commitments increased. The World Food Programme and the European Union joined the list, and donor funding eventually reached US$29 million.” Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is mentioned in later articles as a donor.

Since the early days of ECX, payment has been guaranteed the day after purchase and there is a proud record of zero defaults (as on nearly all regulated exchanges worldwide). This is a big change on earlier problems faced by farmers and others with many buyers reneging on contracts. In addition Eleni’s aimed that the exchange should transform agricultural marketing countrywide, and she oversaw the construction of a host of modern regional warehouses and transport.

On the negative side, a news report in January 2017 in local The Reporter newspaper mentions ECX users reporting problems including increasing contraband and quality compromises by bribing the “cuppers” who grade the commodities.

A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in May 2017 suggests that with regard to coffee, the ECX had not brought enough transformation: “Before the establishment of the ECX, Ethiopia had a fairly well-functioning coffee auction floor in Addis Ababa… Second, the strict regulations that the ECX has introduced into the country’s coffee market have resulted in higher transaction costs. These costs could potentially cancel out the benefits of some of the ECX’s innovations, such as electronic payment systems. Finally, the Ethiopian coffee sector continues to face some inherent challenges that are not affected by the ECX—namely, weak infrastructure and low productivity”.

In February 2017 The Economist published an article about African commodity exchanges dubbing them “high tech, low impact”. It noted that ECX had not moved beyond spot trading since 2008 and futures contracts to help farmers manage price fluctuations are far behind the 5-year target.

The Economist verdict: “The Government made it viable by mandating that almost all trade in coffee and some other commodities go through the exchange. This might not be possible elsewhere. A monopoly imposed by fiat makes it more like a state marketing board than an exchange, says Thomas Jayne, an economist at Michigan State University.

“Another model might be the Agricultural Commodity Exchange for Africa in Malawi, which was set up privately in 2006 at the request of an association of smallholder farmers. But its volumes remain low. And its concentration on staple foods such as maize and soya leaves it vulnerable to the sort of government interventions that can sink exchanges. Trading in staples tends to be politically sensitive in times of food scarcity.

“Setting up national exchanges may be the wrong approach. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange plans to introduce a regional contract for Zambian white maize later this year. For lucrative export crops like coffee, well-established offshore exchanges may make more sense than starting from scratch at home. Better a functioning exchange somewhere else than a disappointing one on the doorstep.”

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