Putin isn’t solely responsible for Africa’s food crisis.
Between 2020 and 2022, figures from the World Bank’s Food Commodities Price Index show that food prices rose by 80%. Soaring food and fuel prices triggered a series of protests in three West African countries over the past month; a potential harbinger of what to expect across the continent in the near term. Beyond the political implications, current realities threaten to worsen already poor statistics on nutrition, healthcare, education, and security across the continent. But how did we get here? And should we be worried? This article addresses these questions.
The popular culprit for the world’s, and Africa’s, food crisis is… well, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And for good reason. Ukraine accounts for nearly 10% of global wheat exports while Russia accounts for 18-20%. Both countries have found it increasingly difficult to supply wheat to the global markets, thanks to Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s port and the West’s sanctions on Russian exports. A near 30% shock to global wheat export clearly presents a major threat to food supplies across the world. And for African countries which had developed a strong demand for wheat-based products like bread and pasta, the shock was especially debilitating. But that is the short-term reason.
Beyond (and before) Russia’s actions in Ukraine, African countries faced other challenges that posed clear dangers to food security on the continent. The covid-19 pandemic dealt a huge blow to the nascent economic recovery enjoyed in prior years, with governments forced to take on crushing debt amidst shrinking demand for export commodities. This external shock (in addition to consequent supply chain challenges) eroded the fiscal strength of many governments, triggering massive debt servicing obligations, inflation, and hard currency shortage. Combined with high import bills (including for wheat), it was clear that the situation was untenable. Beyond the economy, the continued incidence of local conflicts worsened an already bad situation. From Ethiopia’s deadly civil war to farmer-herdsmen clashes across West and Central Africa, disruption to local production triggered local food inflation and threatens to push the continent to the brink.
Finally, the long-term factor, which is often overlooked, is the climate and its impact on the environment. The past two months witnessed two major episodes of extreme weather events across the globe. The first; the record-breaking heatwaves in India and Pakistan as well as China’s floods. The second; Europe’s ongoing battle against deadly heatwaves. Already, huge swaths of real estate in east London and farmlands in Spain and Portugal have been gutted by wildfires. It’s not clear how bad things could get in the coming days. Back home on the continent, repeated episodes of droughts and flooding in different countries displaced hundreds of thousands of people, with negative implications for local food production. Similarly, increased desertification and the consequent farmer-herdsmen conflicts have decreased agricultural production and heightened the spate of insecurity on the continent. Suffice to say that the continent faces significant challenges that go beyond the simplistic blame game peddled around.
There is the popular saying “a hungry man is an angry man”. Figures from the World Food Program show that the number of people facing severe food and nutrition crisis across West and Central Africa increased from 10.7 million in 2019 to 41 million by 2022, thanks to the aforementioned factors. This comes on the heels of a worsening security situation across the region. In the past four months, hitherto stable countries like Togo and Benin Republic have been repeatedly hit by terror attacks, in addition to increased frequency/sophistication of attacks in other countries. A worsening food situation risks providing easy recruits for these non-state actors, further complicating the region’s attempt at ridding itself of terror. In addition to the lives and potential investments lost, a deteriorating security situation risks pushing the region into a vicious cycle where insecurity leads to less food production, with decreased food production triggering more conflict.
Beyond political instability, rising food insecurity could affect the continent’s human capital stock. Statistics from the IMF show that countries in sub-Saharan Africa spent nearly 40% of household income on food. This compares unfavorably with the global average of 17%. Increased food prices would trigger hard choices. Families might be forced to skip meals and/or substitute previous meals with less nutritious ones. This directly translates to increased malnutrition, with negative consequences for the continent’s health outcomes such as child and maternal mortality rates. More so, increased spending on food necessarily reduces the share of family income dedicated to other important expenditures such as education, especially for the girl child. As prices increases and families are forced to prioritize survival, there is the possibility of increased regression in access to education, with long-term consequences for the continent’s economy and human capital. As the paragraph shows, the looming food crisis would affect more than just the stomach.
The problem bedeviling the continent extends beyond Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Therefore, any attempt at solving it would require more than an impassioned plea to Putin to release grains from Ukraine’s ports. Admittedly, in the short term, a successful negotiation might assuage global concerns. However, the conflict, whose end date remains elusive, will inevitably lead to a major decline in Ukraine’s outputs in the next harvest season. With other countries (nearly 15) imposing stringent export controls and/or outright bans on food exports, failure to take a holistic short- and long-term view on the food crisis in Africa could be disastrous for the continent.
In the short to midterm, there is the need to ensure redundancy in supplies. If there is anything to learn from the current crisis in Ukraine, it is the increased uncertainty in the international order and the dangers of relying almost completely on a single region for critical supplies. Europe is learning it the hard way in its energy sector. Africa must learn those lessons with regard to food imports. Beyond diversifying external sources, there is the need for a continent-wide agreement on minimum food production under the auspices of the AU, the AFDB, or regional bodies like ECOWAS. As the previous paragraphs show, food security is no longer an individual or family concern. It is (or should be) a national and continental security issue. Increased financing for production, research and storage aimed at ensuring a base level of local sufficiency must be adopted to avoid a dire scenario of expanded export bans by more countries across the globe.
Beyond supporting local production, the continent must take a deeper look at the increased impact of climate on the environment. While parts of the continent, especially the horn of Africa region, have endured repeated episodes of extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, the prognosis going forward is dire. Climate-related disasters are expected to increase in both frequency and economic/sociopolitical impact, especially in developing countries. Therefore, a comprehensive approach to dealing with the continent’s environmental challenges is important. These would include climate resilience and mitigation strategy, a realistic energy transition plan, and affordable climate disaster insurance packages, especially for farmers and other vulnerable groups.
Finally, a holistic approach to tackling the myriad of security challenges bedeviling the continent, especially the West/Central Africa region is required. Worsening insecurity already affects the productivity of farmers across the continent. As the activities of non-state actors increase in geographic breadth and sophistication, a decrease in internal agricultural productivity is inevitable. Thus there is a need for a more robust continent-wide counterterrorism strategy to complement ongoing national efforts. Of critical importance is stronger monitoring of cross-border movement of weapons, contraband, and personnel. This could be done at the regional and/or continental level, with a view towards denying non-state actors the ease of cross-border mobility currently enjoyed.
The war in Ukraine did more than violate a state’s border. It showed the fragility of the argument on trade based on comparative advantage with no recourse to redundancy and supply security. Europe’s dire energy reality is (or should be) a wake-up call to the African continent on what could happen in the coming months in the agricultural sphere if current geopolitical developments continue. Combined with the continent’s idiosyncratic challenges, countries on the continent could be in for a rough ride if the looming food crisis is met with inadequate preparation.