Africa facing food crisis as Ukraine war drives commodity price hikes

As UK foreign secretary Liz Truss warned the war in Ukraine could last for a decade, there are growing fears that Russia’s invasion of the nation has worsened the food security crisis in many African countries.

Human Rights watch has warned action needs to be taken to avert what is fast becoming a major crisis in countries across the continent.

“Many countries in East, West, Middle, and Southern Africa rely on Russia and Ukraine for a significant percentage of their wheat, fertiliser, or vegetable oils imports, but the war disrupts global commodity markets and trade flows to Africa, increasing already high food prices in the region,” the organisation said. “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 hunger.”

Lena Simet, senior researcher on poverty and inequality at Human Rights Watch said the impact was already being felt by millions.

“Many countries in Africa were already in a food crisis,” she explained. “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.”

HRW added 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 programs 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 realizing the right to food.

“Before the war in Ukraine, 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, and droughts, and the Covid-19 pandemic, which disrupted production efforts and global supply chains,” It added. “Since Russia’s invasion, global food prices have reached new heights. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Food Price Index, a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities, increased 12.6 percent 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 more than 40 percent 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 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 many 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 well-being’,” it added. “In situations of severe food insecurity, people have a higher likelihood of running out of food and experiencing hunger, sometimes going days without eating.”

It added in Cameroon, where more than half of the population was food insecure 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, where nearly 7 out of 10 people were food insecure before the war but only 1 out of 10 are covered by at least one form of social protection, the cost of cooking oil increased by 6.5 percent between February and March alone. In Nigeria, where food insecurity affected nearly 6 out of 10 before the war, year to year food inflation was 17.2 percent in March, with prices of bread, rice, and yams rising even faster, by more than 30 percent.

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