War, the pandemic and climate change are compounding food insecurity in many African countries War, the pandemic and climate change are compounding food insecurity in many African countries 

Ukraine war compounding food crises and poverty in Africa

The far-reaching effects of the war in Ukraine include the worsening of a food security crisis in many African countries that rely on wheat, barley, fertilizer and vegetable oils imports.

By Marine Henriot & Linda Bordoni

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa rely on Russia and Ukraine for a significant percentage of their wheat, fertilizers and vegetable oils imports, but the war has disrupted global commodity markets and trade flows to Africa, and increased high food prices.

Speaking to Vatican Radio, Lena Simet, a senior researcher on poverty and inequality at Human Rights Watch says urgent action is required from governments and the international community as rising prices compound the plight of millions of people who are already suffering from the effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic and Climate Change.

Listen to HRW's Lena Simet

Both Russia and Ukraine are huge producers of staple foods, like cereals. In particular, some 30% of the global wheat production comes from these countries.

These countries are also big exporters of other important products like barley, sunflower oil and other types of vegetable oils that are used for cooking and food production as well as fertilizers, Simet said, explaining that these are very important because they also support local production.

“Let's say Cameroon, for instance, and other parts of Africa get quite a lot of fertilizer components from Russia, if that falls off - and some of it has already fallen off - it affects local production” by harming crops that produce much less. 

“Globally speaking, there is enough food”

However, she explained, the way the trades have been flowing, there has been an interruption and other countries have not stepped in, to the degree that is needed to make up for the losses.

“Instead, some countries have been sitting on their food supply, because they see the prices go up and so they introduce export restrictions,” which results in less food on the global market and an increase in prices of the goods.

“So it's kind of like an artificial increase of the food prices, which is not an actual global shortage, but it is a shortage in the local markets”

The pandemic

Basically, Simet said, “there's not enough done by other countries to step in and share.”

The problem is compounded by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic that has already affected supply chains and production because factories have had to close, some farming has been stopped, many workers have not been able to work because of restrictions, etc.

maize dies on the plant in South Africa's drought-stricken Free State Province
maize dies on the plant in South Africa's drought-stricken Free State Province

Climate Change

Simet also highlighted the impact of Climate Change pointing out that there are many parts of the region that have suffered from enormous droughts or from heavy rainfall that in turn, have affected local production.

“So all of these things coming together:  the pandemic, the climate events, and now the war, are really leading to the very concerning situation that we are seeing now,” she said.

WFP distributes sacks of wheat in Ethiopia's Tigray region
WFP distributes sacks of wheat in Ethiopia's Tigray region

Short term actions

Simet says that in an immediate timeframe governments and international financial institutions must refrain from pressuring countries and take action to help prevent further suffering.

“The countries that still have a lot of wheat and other staple foods in storage should put them on the market and share them, instead of hoarding them,” she said, highlighting the fact that this would also prevent the increase in prices.

In addition, Simet continued, “high-income countries that have the fiscal space should be providing economic assistance to other countries. In fact, so many African countries have very high levels of debt because of the pandemic” and that makes it very difficult for them to borrow more and meet their credits.

 “So there needs to be a mechanism for them to receive additional credit lines or other forms of financial assistance to better the situation,” she said.

Aid for the people

Another issue, Simet said, is that “this assistance should go to alleviate the pressure on the population,” expressing the concern that money that is blowing into the country is not reaching the people” as we have seen in too many Covid-19 situations where relief money “has been captured by certain groups, or corruption issues have prevented it from reaching those in need.”

Long term action

Long term solutions must be enacted by the countries themselves, Simet continued, noting that those countries that have become very dependent on imported food should invest more in local production, “becoming more autonomous in their food systems, which in turn means being more mindful of climate change, and not being so dependent on these fluctuations of the international market.”

Stronger investments in social protection systems would also support low-income countries, she said, and the international community has the responsibility to make sure no one is left behind:

“The international institutions that finance and support them should ensure that support reaches everyone in need.”

Fields of wheat in South Africa
Fields of wheat in South Africa
02 May 2022, 16:54