Africa food crisis looms as Russia, Ukraine war continues

· Continent needs aid, expansion of social protection to prevent hunger

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has worsened the food security crisis in most African countries. Many countries in East, West, Middle and Southern Africa rely on Russia and Ukraine for a significant percentage of their wheat, fertilizer or vegetable oils imports, but the war disrupts global commodity markets and trade flows to Africa, increasing already high food prices in the region.

Even countries that import little from the two countries are indirectly impacted by higher world prices for key commodities. Governments and donors should ensure affordable food access in Africa by scaling up economic and emergency assistance and social protection efforts. Otherwise, millions of people across the African continent may experience severe hunger.

Senior Researcher on Poverty and Inequality with Human Rights Watch, Lena Simet, said: “Many countries in Africa were already in food crisis. Rising prices are compounding the plight of millions of people thrown into poverty by the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring urgent action by governments and the international community.”
Under global and African human rights law everyone has the right to sufficient and adequate food. To protect this right, governments are obligated to enact policies and initiate programmes to ensure that everyone can afford safe and nutritious food. Social protection systems that implement the right to social security for all can be key instruments for realising the right to food.

Before the war, countries in East, West, Middle and Southern Africa, including Angola, Cameroon, Kenya and Nigeria, were already grappling with soaring food prices due to extreme climate and weather events, such as floods, landslides, droughts and the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted production efforts and global supply chains.

Since Russia’s invasion, global food prices have reached new heights. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation’s (FAO) Food Price Index (FPI), a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities, increased by 12.6 per cent from February to March. The March index is the highest it has been since the measure was created in the 1990s.

Russia and Ukraine are among the top five global exporters of barley, sunflowers and maize, and account for about a third of the world’s wheat exports. Nigeria, the world’s fourth largest wheat importer, receives a fourth of its imports from Russia and Ukraine. Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan source over 40 per cent of their wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) –buys half of the wheat it distributes around the world from Ukraine. With the war, supplies are squeezed and prices continue to rise, including for fuel, increasing the cost for transporting food in and to the region.

Human Rights Watch research on the food situation in Cameroon, Kenya and Nigeria confirms that the rising food prices, exacerbated by the war severely affect people’s livelihoods and food security in most African countries, especially where adequate social protection is lacking. The United Nations defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to food, which diminishes dietary quality, disrupts normal eating patterns and can have negative consequences for nutrition, health and wellbeing.” In situations of severe food insecurity, people have higher likelihood of running out of food and experiencing hunger, sometimes going days without eating.

In Cameroon, where more than half of the population experienced food insecurity before the war, the cost of imported food is driving local food inflation, with bread and other staple foods increasingly out of reach to those with low incomes. In Kenya, nearly seven of 10 people were food insecure before the war, but only one of 10 are covered by at least one form of social protection, the cost of cooking oil increased by 6.5 per cent between February and March alone. In Nigeria, where food insecurity affected nearly six of 10 before the war, year-to-year food inflation was 17.2 per cent in March, with prices of bread, rice and yams rising even faster by over 30 per cent.

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The WFP warned that if the war lasted beyond April, acute hunger may increase by 17 per cent globally, with the sharpest increases expected in countries in East, West and Southern Africa. They said the total number of people in these regions experiencing acute food insecurity may rise by 20.8 per cent, affecting 174 million people.

Before the war, the cost of nutritious foods and high rates of poverty and inequality kept healthy diets out of reach for 66.2 per cent of people in the region, according to FAO estimates for 2020. Approximately 323.2 million people in Africa or 29.5 per cent of the population ran out of food or went without eating that year. In West Africa and Middle Africa, the share of food insecure populations is even higher at 68.3 per cent and 70 per cent, respectively. The number of people affected by food insecurity continued to increase under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also, the World Bank data suggests that the Nigerian adult population suffering from moderate or severe food insecurity increased from 48.5 per cent in 2019 to 75.5 per cent in 2021. A Gallup World Poll before the war found that in Nigeria, 71 per cent of the population lacked money for food in 2020 and 69 per cent in Kenya. The poll also noted that the two countries imported approximately 31 per cent and 34 per cent of wheat from Russia and Ukraine and with disruptions occasioned by the war, the situation can only become worse, with the risk of people being pushed into destitution, starvation and premature mortality.

Food inflation particularly affects poor people, who spend more of their income on food even when consuming the lowest-cost options. The World Bank reported that in African cities food accounts for 60 per cent of total expenditures for the bottom 20 per cent of urban households and 35 per cent for the wealthiest, making it hard to absorb price hikes. People forced to spend more on basic staples have to adapt by purchasing lower quality food, eating less and reducing essential nonfood expenditures like health or education.

To prevent a hunger crisis, a rights-centered response is vital, Human Rights Watch said. Governments should act to protect everyone’s rights to an adequate standard of living, and in particular the right to food, by scaling up emergency food aid and expanding social protection systems. Investing in social protection might be a tall order for many African governments facing high debt levels and stretched fiscal positions after two years of the pandemic.

A Global Fund for Social Protection should be set up to increase the level of support for low-income countries, helping them to establish and maintain social protection floors in the form of legal entitlements. Many social protection systems in African countries are at least in part financed and supported by the World Bank, which should ensure that support reaches everyone in need.

International financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank should refrain from pressuring countries to adopt fiscal consolidation measures that could further raise the cost of food or cut social spending.

Preventing a worsening food crisis requires international cooperation. Food exporting governments should carefully balance export restrictions to protect the right to food domestically, while minimising to the extent possible impacts on food supply and prices for other countries. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) estimates that 40 per cent of the increase in global wheat prices during the 2011 food crisis resulted from hoarding.

Importing governments should work to ensure that nutritious food is affordable and accessible to everyone. In the long run, importing countries in Africa should boost local food production to increase food sovereignty and make food systems more sustainable. This requires support for climate change adaptation and resilience in the region.

“The war in Ukraine has led to more people across Africa going hungry. Governments should do everything in their powers to mitigate the impact of rising food prices and avert a hunger crisis. Expanding social protection and ensuring the supply of affordable food is critical to protecting the right to food for everyone,” Simet said.

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