The Implication of the Russia-Ukraine Invasion on Food systems in Africa
On February 24th, 2022, Russia launched an attack on Ukraine, a European democracy with a population of approximately 44 million people.
Despite the geographical location of the two European countries, the invasion is casting a long shadow across Africa as the impact will ultimately affect the attainment of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 and 8 which calls for the eradication of hunger and establishment of sustainable economic growth and employment, respectively.
In sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture accounts for 32% of the GDP and employs 65% of the workforce. Despite this fact, in 2021 food prices skyrocketed across many African countries as a result of extreme drought and shocks brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. During the 2020-2021 agricultural season, the continent was supplied with wheat, corn, cooking oil and other staple foods worth approximately 2.6 billion euros from Ukraine and 3.6 billion euros from Russia.
With Russia and Ukraine collectively supplying approximately 30% of the world’s wheat, a disruption of this supply would drive up the prices of commodities and aggravate food insecurity across Africa. The crisis is likely to affect North African countries that rely on both European countries for grains like wheat and corn. With countries in Africa already struggling to recover from the impacts of a deadly pandemic, as well as a worsening climate crisis that is driving Africans deeper into poverty, countries in North Africa currently experiencing drought such as such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Libya are likely to feel the pinch due to their heavy reliance on the grains to feed their populations. On the other hand, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Chad, Burkina Faso, and the Democratic Republic of Congo which are already on the verge of famine are also at risk due to their reliance on food aid which primarily consist of grains from Russia and Ukraine. Currently, global food prices are at the highest they’ve been since 2011, meaning that the invasion will only make things worse for food security and economic stability on the continent. On March 9, 2022, the Ukrainian government banned exports of grain and other food products to prevent a domestic humanitarian crisis. Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer from Russia and Ukraine, is especially vulnerable as it relies heavily on subsidized imports to ensure affordable access to bread and vegetable oil, with more than 70 million of its citizens relying on subsidized bread. Additionally, the country imports over half of its sunflower oil from Ukraine.
In a cabinet meeting on February 23rd, Egypt’s Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly stated that the country’s current stockpile of wheat in silos would be sufficient for four months and in April, local production will be harvested, extending the stock to approximately nine months. A few days later, on March 10th the Egyptian government announced an immediate three-month ban on the export of wheat, flour, and other staples. The government aims to secure wheat from alternative sources and so will most likely avoid an immediate shortage of wheat supplies, but the direct impact could be a sharp increase in prices. Should prices of wheat increase, so would need for subsidies to maintain the cost to the population, at a time when the government was already looking to cut bread subsidies. It is important to note that in June 2021, the Egyptian government reduced subsidies for sunflower and soybean oil by 20 percent as response to an increase in prices.
The price of subsidized bread has remained at 5 piastres (US$0.003) a loaf since the 1980s. Bread subsidies are notoriously politically sensitive since the 1977 bread riots that erupted after President Anwar Sadat’s announcement lifting subsidies on flour, rice, and cooking oil.
Meanwhile, importers from the Black Sea region are already facing extremely volatile circumstances that could be worsened by the rising food prices. In Sudan, since Russia replaced Australia as the main wheat importer, the retail price had already spiked due to a blockade of protesters at Port Sudan in October 2021. Given the relationship between bread prices and politics, further elevation in food prices is projected to further fuel civilian anger. Moreover, experts have warned that, should the war between Russia and Ukraine drag on, Russia could also impose export tarifs on its wheat to improve its food security.
The Ukrainian invasion has also affected the energy sector. The rising cost of energy and the fact that Russia is the largest exporter of fertilizer will also impact the pricing of fertilizer-an important commodity in agriculture. It is essential to mention that in 2021, the costs of urea and phosphate—two major components of fertilizer—had already risen by 30 and 4 percent, respectively. In Africa, low natural soil fertility means that chemical fertilizer is often essential for food production, and several countries have had fertilizer subsidy schemes in place since the Abuja fertilizer summit in 2006 and food price crisis of 2008/2009.
In a nutshell, hunger rates are expected to rise, and African economies will likely be pushed further away from recovering from the economic-knock dealt to them by the COVID-19 pandemic. Both have the potential to push African citizens deeper into poverty thus there is a lot at stake for the food system in Africa.
*Written by J. Akinyi