Ukraine war: Distant Africa faces acute food crisis

Before a crisis 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles) away in Ukraine caused global prices for cereals, cooking oils, fuel, and fertilizer surging, Zimbabwean security officer Edwin Dapi was already struggling to care for his wife and four children.

His monthly salary of 18,000 Zimbabwe dollars, or $55 at the black market rate utilized in many informal marketplaces, is now strained to the limit.

The 46-year-old was worried about his family’s next meal at a grocery in Mabvuku, one of Harare’s poorest neighborhoods.

He grabbed for a 2-litre (0.5 gallon) bottle of vegetable oil, but it was beyond of his price range at 990 Zimbabwean dollars. A 2 kilogram (4.4 pound) bag of flour cost 390 Zimbabwean dollars.

He scratched oil and wheat off his grocery list, saying, “I keep hearing it’s because of Ukraine, but I’m not sure what it has to do with us.”

Price spikes prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to UN agencies, would exacerbate a food catastrophe in Africa, where the COVID-19 epidemic, armed conflicts, climatic shocks, and economic turbulence have already pushed tens of millions of people into abject poverty.

According to a report released this month by the United Nations and the European Union’s Global Network Against Food Crises, Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for over two-thirds of the 193 million people globally who were assessed to be acutely food insecure last year.

Since the confiscation of hundreds of white-owned farms to relocate black families, a program championed by Zimbabwe’s late president Robert Mugabe throughout the 2000s, Zimbabwe has struggled to feed itself.

Drought and cyclones, rolling power outages, foreign currency shortages, and out-of-control inflation have all slowed the economy recently.

According to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), 5.3 million Zimbabweans – over a third of the population – are food insecure.

To make ends meet, Dapi said he was planning to relocate his family to Mutoko, 140 kilometers (87 miles) northeast of Harare. “Everything is going up except my wage,” he explained, “therefore I need to cut my rent and school expenses.”

Food insecurity is on the rise across Africa. More than 2 million children in the Horn of Africa are at risk of starvation, according to UN assistance head Martin Griffiths, who warned donors in Geneva on April 26 that sections of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia are experiencing the driest conditions in more than 40 years.

A civil conflict in Ethiopia has forced hundreds of thousands of people into starvation. Millions more are at danger in South Sudan, where a war that concluded in 2020 wreaked havoc on the country, which was exacerbated by some of the worst flooding in centuries.

Islamist insurgencies in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria have pushed millions of people from their land, causing West Africa’s biggest food crisis on record. Floods and droughts have also become more severe in the region as a result of global warming.

The crisis in Ukraine is exacerbating an already terrible situation.

The war has hindered shipping in the Black Sea, a crucial route for grains and other commodities, stifling shipments from Russia and Ukraine to destinations such as Africa. Because of the fighting, Ukraine estimates that the area sowed with grains will drop by almost a fifth this year.

Nearly half of Africa’s 54 countries rely on Russia and Ukraine for wheat imports, according to Abebe Haile-Gabriel, deputy director-general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and its representative for Africa. In addition, Russia is a significant fertilizer provider to at least 11 nations.

The impact of the Ukraine war overlaps with a catastrophe that is already occurring in several African nations,” Abebe told the press. “The future appears to be pretty bleak.”

Food inflation was driving many African households to the edge even before the Ukraine crisis. According to the FAO, global food commodity prices rose by more than 23% last year, the fastest rate in more than a decade.

Many of the world’s poorest people rely on food aid from the World Food Programme, which buys half of the wheat it distributes from Ukraine. According to Tomson Phiri, a worldwide spokeswoman, rising food and fuel prices have boosted its monthly operational expenses by $71 million, or 50%, since 2019.

“WFP is in a double bind: our costs are rising while the number of hungry people grows,” he told the reporters.

Prior to the Ukraine crisis, the World Food Programme (WFP) suffered a budget shortage that caused it to decrease rations in 17 African nations, including Zimbabwe, Chad, South Sudan, and Ethiopia, and the gap has increased as donors focus on the European conflict, according to Phiri.

Grain shortages, according to experts, may have a particularly negative impact in North Africa, where nations like Egypt buy up to 80% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine.

Higher international prices for major commodities are hurting even African countries that import little from them.

Kenya, the largest economy in East Africa, was spared the worst effects because millers there sought alternative suppliers after Russia raised tariffs on wheat shipments last year, according to Kennedy Nyaga, head of the United Grain Millers Association.

Kenya has enough wheat stocks to survive until September, but the drought has depleted maize stores, the country’s mainstay, according to Nyaga.

The union is urging the government to enable millers to import 360,000 tons of maize duty-free, claiming that prices have risen from roughly 2,800 shillings to 4,500 shillings per 90 kg bag since December.

Requests for response were not returned by Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture. On May 5, Finance Minister Ukur Yatani stated that he had yet to receive a request for duty-free imports from millers.

Households in Zimbabwe are already feeling the pinch. According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, around half of the country’s 15 million inhabitants live on less than $1.90 each day.

Households’ food insecurity was exacerbated in March when the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe raised prices for wheat flour and maize meal by nearly 15%, blaming rising worldwide costs connected to the Ukraine conflict.

Zimbabwe buys the majority of its wheat from the Black Sea and Baltic areas, according to the FAO, with Russia and Ukraine accounting for over a fifth of all imports last year.

Monica Mutsvangwa, the Information Minister, claimed in March that the government had acquired enough maize and wheat stockpiles from local farmers for the 2021-21 crop year to protect the poor from food shortages this year.

However, in April, the millers’ group enforced even higher price rises of 31% for wheat flour and 52% for maize meal.

The company claims it is looking for alternate sources for at least 155,000 tonnes of imports needed till October’s harvest.

Zimbabwe’s annual inflation surged to 96 percent in April, up from 61 percent in January, as gasoline prices increased and the currency rapidly depreciated.

Many farmers in Zimbabwe are struggling to buy fertilizer as a result of the disruption of Russian shipments, and dry weather is harming crop production in some regions of the nation.

According to the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, fertilizer costs have increased by 30% in the last year.

“If fertilizer costs persist at record high levels, crop output predictions for the 2022/23 agricultural year would be bleak,” Maria Gallar Sanchez, a WFP Zimbabwe spokesman, warned.

Requests for response from Zimbabwe’s information, agriculture, and commerce ministries were not returned.

Prices of potash, ammonia, urea, and other essential soil nutrients have increased by 200 percent to 400 percent since January 2021, according to fertilizer company Omnia Holdings (OMNJ.J), which operates in numerous African nations.

Small-scale farmers, who consume more than 70% of fertilizer in the region, have been impacted the hardest, according to Omnia Chief Executive Seelan Gobalsamy.

Boniface Mutize, a maize and soybean farmer near Harare, said he had begun producing his own fertilizer by combining cow dung or chicken manure with zinc. However, he claims he need ammonium nitrate, which is not readily available in Zimbabwe.

“Many smallholder farmers would not be able to cultivate their own food next season,” he warned.

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