Geographies in Depth

Averting an African food crisis in the wake of the Ukraine war

Malawian women walk past empty grain silos in the capital Lilongwe May 26, 2002. A food crisis affected Malawi and six other southern Africa countries during a 2003 drought.

Africa is facing another food crisis, as the war in Ukraine, a major food exporter, pushes up wheat prices worldwide. Image: Reuters

Ahunna Eziakonwa
Director, UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa and UN Assistant Secretary General
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Africa

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Despite hosting 60% of the world's arable land, Africa is a major importer of food, and the war in Ukraine threatens to cut off supplies to much of the continent.
  • Millions are now in danger of being pushed into poverty and malnutrition, and stability and security could be at risk if food insecurity persists.
  • Multilateral initiatives, such as the upcoming 8th Tokyo International Conference on African Development, can help to develop sustainable and home-grown solutions to the content's challenges.

In Nigeria in the late 1960s, one million people died of starvation during the Biafran war. A decade and a half later, food shortages and hunger in Ethiopia triggered by a natural disaster cost the lives of 1 million Africans.

Today, a fresh disaster — the war in Ukraine — threatens to plunge the continent into yet another episode of famine and deprivation.

Fourteen African countries depend on Russia and Ukraine for more than half of their wheat imports, while almost half the continent depends on imports for more than a third of their wheat. Apart from the looming supply constraints, this crisis has already pushed food grain prices up by more than 25% in a matter of weeks. Some countries are bracing for supply shortfalls.

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Millions in danger

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating socio-economic impact across Africa, the crisis in Ukraine threatens to place an inordinate burden on African households — many of which were already struggling to put food on the table. Wandile Sihlobo, Chief Economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa, anticipates critical short-term supply and pricing effects — a food crisis — unless the conflict is resolved expeditiously.

Higher food prices mean that fewer African households will be able to afford a single decent daily meal. Malnourishment will rise. Africa’s food-insecure households will be left much further behind. Their consumption rates will fall, savings will be depleted, debt will increase, and assets will be liquidated.

In short, in a food crisis, millions will be in danger of malnutrition and deepened poverty.

Some African countries, such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa, have domestic price controls and export restrictions in place. Benin has instituted an export ban. Others — such as Malawi, Zambia, and Uganda — offer cash subsidies to vulnerable groups. But with the sharp rise in fuel and energy prices, another consequence of the situation in Ukraine, very few African countries will have the fiscal space to sustain such policies, even if they wished to pursue them.

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Food crisis and human security

Food insecurity in Africa is not just a socioeconomic issue. It is also a matter of human security.

Rather than wars and insurgencies, riots and protests now account for over half of violent events in Africa, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED). Recent violent protests sparked by domestic price increases in Sierra Leone illustrate how inflationary pressures can easily foment instability. Recall, too, how the Arab revolts in the early 2010s sparked protests across North Africa.

High food prices typically hit the most vulnerable households hardest, making them “multidimensionally poor,” meaning they lack not just income but also access to electricity, cooking fuel, and basic social services. Shrinking budgets will cause households to dispose of their assets, eroding their ability to cushion themselves against future shocks. These indirect effects of the food crisis will constrain economic activity, widen inequalities, and could trigger social tensions and unrest.

The impacts of the war in Ukraine on food security in Africa raise three pertinent questions: Why is the continent with 60% of the world’s arable land unable to feed itself? Why is it difficult for African regions with food surpluses to supply those with deficits? And how did Africa go from a relatively self-sufficient food producer in the 1970s to an overly dependent food importer by 2022?

Answering these questions will help chart a way forward to sustained and sustainable food security across the continent.

That food insecurity and food crisis have dire socio-economic and security implications for Africa’s people, households, businesses, and governments are clear — and these could have profound regional and global consequences.

Now is not the time for a retreat of development efforts in Africa or a diversion of resources from the continent. Strategic investments in development and food security at this critical juncture will lay the foundation for sustainability and self-sufficiency.

Preserving multilateralism for development

If Africa is to withstand this global shock, the international community’s immediate efforts should include enhanced bilateral assistance, innovative multilateral initiatives including a swift re-channeling of IMF Special Drawing Rights, and support for domestic resource mobilization.

The war in Ukraine cannot be allowed to weaken multilateralism, and development assistance must not become a policy tool.

Consistent support from development partners is needed to put African countries back on track towards shared global development aspirations. Declining multilateralism would unravel decades of significant development progress and roll back gains made in fighting COVID-19 globally. This is why the development community must redouble its efforts to provide adequate and timely support across the continent.

An upcoming opportunity is the 8th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD8) scheduled for August this year, where African leaders and their counterparts from Japan will come together to strengthen partnerships and cooperation, with Africa in the driver’s seat. For nearly 30 years, the TICAD platform has recognized that for Africa to achieve sustainable development, the continent has to find homegrown solutions to its challenges.

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How is the World Economic Forum helping to improve humanitarian assistance?

Among the cornerstones of Africa-Japan relations is an emphasis on supporting African countries in their efforts to reduce their dependency on food imports and thus avert a future food crisis. Furthermore, Japan-funded projects acknowledge that further investment in technology and the promotion of innovative approaches to entrepreneurship will position Africa’s youth to help spur an African food production revolution.

A starting point should be establishing policy frameworks and a regulatory environment that promote agriculture and remove the perennial credit, land tenure, market, and technology barriers that have beleaguered food production and marketing for decades. Opportunities presented by the African Continental Free Trade Area arrangement must also be seized, to scale up production and benefit from expanded regional markets.

African countries should, once again, be regional bread baskets and powerhouses of sustainable and self-sufficient economic development.

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