The war in Ukraine has hit Africa’s food security

Russia’s invasion has triggered cost rises and staple shortages. Ugochi Anyaka-Oluigbo examines the crisis faced by low-income countries.

A recent call by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s for the African Union to support his country as it battles Russian forces was mocked on Nigerian social media for its supposed irrelevance to the continent. While the war is indeed happening several miles away, in fact it is Nigeria which has largely relied on Ukraine – and Russia – to keep hunger at bay, and not the other way around.

In 2020 alone, wheat constituted 90 per cent of Russia’s $4 billion worth of exports to Africa, while Ukraine followed closely behind with exports worth $3 billion, of which wheat accounted for 48 per cent and maize 31 per cent.

For years now, Africa has been suffering the economic impacts of various conflicts on top of the challenges posed by climate change. Recovery from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is happening at a snail’s pace. The Russia-Ukraine war has only furthered insecurity for low-income countries on the continent.

Most countries in Africa were already grappling with soaring food prices due to extreme climate, insecurity and the Covid-19 pandemic

Millions face severe hunger as the war threatens supplies of key staple crops. Access, availability and affordability of food is shrinking rapidly, exacerbating poverty and unemployment. In Sudan, a hard currency shortage has resulted in the depreciation of the Sudanese Pound (SDG) coupled with rocketing food and transportation costs. Many families are finding it hard to manage a decent meal a day. Nigeria’s food and economic scenario looks to be heading in the same direction.

Soaring prices

Debo Akande, Senior Specialist and Head of Agribusiness and Mechanisation at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, says many African countries were yet to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic when the invasion of Ukraine began. ‘Before the war in Ukraine, most countries in Africa were already grappling with soaring food prices due to extreme climate, terrorism-induced instability and the Covid-19 pandemic, which disrupted production efforts and global supply chains,’ he says. ‘Since Russia’s invasion, global food prices have reached new highs.’

According to the spokesperson of the World Food Programme in Sudan: ‘Around 18 million people may be forced to deplete their essential livelihood assets or will have nothing more to sell to meet their essential food needs. The war in Ukraine is driving food and fuel prices further up, making it harder for poor families to put food on the table.’

The current price of wheat in Sudan is up by 180 per cent compared to 2021, reflecting the difficulty of importing it from the Black Sea region. Nigeria is no different; there’s a surge in prices of in-demand foods such as custard, cornflakes, oats and even the locally made akamu (a fermented cereal pudding), all resulting from warfare half the world away.

Russia is a major supplier of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous, three key components of fertilizers

The shortage of wheat and maize imports is having a knock-on effect on the production of a variety of foods across Africa. In Nigeria, a bag of flour that was $37 in 2020 now costs $60. There’s seldom enough corn to manufacture cornflakes, a favourite breakfast staple. The little that’s available undergoes outrageous inflation.

Meanwhile price hikes of essential agricultural inputs like fertilizers and seeds are also making some farmers in Nigeria and Sudan consider abandoning food production and look for other work. The danger this poses to food security in the near future is evident. ‘Russia is a major supplier of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous, three key components of fertilizers,’ says Akande. ‘Increase in the price is reducing affordability.’ A recent report from the World Food Programme (WFP) indicates that cereal production in Africa from 2021 to 2022 falls short of covering the needs of the population, leaving the poorest dependent on humanitarian assistance.

Building resilience

‘It’s alarming to see rising prices and the threat of hunger and food riots return to many countries in Africa,’ says Mamadou Goïta who serves as Executive Director at the Mali-based Institute for Research and Promotion of Alternatives in Development and a food expert with the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES). ‘Rebuilding regional sovereign grain reserves is a key to resilience when these sorts of shocks hit.’

One programme in Ethiopia supports a 200,00-hectare lowland irrigated wheat-growing scheme which has seen farmers raise their yields by four and half times

Economic analyst Dumebi Oluwole thinks that African commodities’ markets have been so hard hit by the war that they may not be recovering anytime soon.

‘Most African countries, including Nigeria, depend on the warring and NATO countries for a number of things like investment inflows, loans, exports and imports,’ he says. ‘They generate revenue from the sales [export] of commodities like oil, natural gas, cocoa, copper, etc. So when any global, regional or domestic event distorts the global market for these commodities, they are heavily impacted and it trickles down to their foreign reserves, exchange rates, domestic commodity markets, inflation [rates] and overall economic growth.’

Many experts fear that the IMF’s recently revised forecast of Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP growth for 2022 – down to 3.8 per cent from 4.5 per cent – was amended solely on account of Russia’s invasion.

Ultimately, a solution for Africa’s food-security problem must involve greater self-sufficiency, a view also promoted by the African Development Bank (AfDB). The Bank’s flagship initiative, Technologies For African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT), targeting nine food commodities in more than 30 African countries, is already boosting the production of foods like wheat, rice and other cereal crops. In Ethiopia the programme supports a 200,00-hectare lowland irrigated wheat-growing scheme which has seen farmers raise their yields by four and half times. The goal is to rapidly expand food production across the continent to mitigate shortages now and in the future.

Producing a wide variety of ‘traditional and ecologically appropriate crops, in a wide range of different countries and regions in the world’ is key to resilience, according to Jennifer Clapp, Vice Chair of the UN High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition and co-writer of a recent IPES report on the war in Ukraine and the global food crisis. This would also mean, she emphasizes, ‘using production methods that are built on principles of ecological diversity and equity, delivered within a range of different types of trading systems, including local and regional markets in a better balance with global supply chains’.

Admittedly, food systems around the world – not just in Africa – are facing serious strain due to a conflict between two countries that, together, account for a third of global wheat production. In Africa however, a region already burdened by infrastructure deficits and mismanagement of public resources in many instances, the war is the latest reason for why its hunger pangs are getting sharper.