The outbreak of the war in Ukraine has put global food security at stake.
In East Africa, the conflict is expected to heavily affect food supplies. Already severely weakened by drought and low rainfalls, with the ripple effects of the Covid-19 pandemic still ongoing, the area risks seeing its food supply chain further reduced, as volatile grains prices, rising fertiliser costs, and increased fuel and energy costs collectively jeopardise the food security of millions of people.
Wheat and sunflower oil markets in turmoil
Russia and Ukraine play a critical role in the global agricultural market. Together, they export over 27% of the world's wheat, and the conflict could worsen Eastern Africa countries’ already frail food security condition.
Wheat is one of the most widely consumed cereal in East Africa; however, the region is heavily dependent on imports.
Prices, already on an upward trend since the end of 2020, peaked in the first quarter of 2022, driven by the severe instability brought by the war. Some risk factors can further deteriorate the situation: Ukraine's prospected inability to produce wheat to satisfy global demand in the upcoming months, the possibility that Russia raises tariff export, shipping disruptions from military blocks and sanctions, and the potential introduction of third countries’ export ban — such as the case of Egypt, which preferred to maintain its surplus for domestic supply only.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), the Horn of Africa will be the hardest hit from disruptions to global wheat trade. In the short term, the situation might be potentially disastrous. Somalia is highly import-dependent from both Russia and Ukraine, with the sum of its exports from the two countries, covering 92% of its overall wheat imports.
Moreover, Ethiopia, imports 17% of its wheat from Ukraine and, since it can rely on a significant domestic production of wheat (over 5 million tonnes per year), the food availability in the country appears to stand on slightly more solid ground. However, rainfall forecasts for the coming season are not promising, thereby affecting food security.
Furthermore, 54% of Sudan’s wheat imports rely on Russia, whilst only marginally (4%) on Ukrainian exports; however, its currency’s weakness could reduce its purchasing power, with dire consequences for the population's food security.
Finally, Egypt is the largest exporter of wheat flour to Eritrea, which could in turn be indirectly affected as the ban on Egyptian exports could cause a shortage of food in the country.
Along with issues regarding wheat, the conflict bears heavy consequences on the oilseeds market, too. Ukraine and Russia are the first and second world exporters of sunflower seed oil, respectively.
It is interesting to note that, within the East Africa region, only Sudan is an importer from both countries, with 55 and 40 % from Russia and Ukraine, respectively.
The rest of the countries import from Ukraine, albeit not in particularly high quantities, with the sole exception of Kenya, which relies on Ukraine for over 76% of its imports
Again, difficulties in Ukraine’s production and in shipping may lead to an increase in oil prices, thus affecting people's diets.
Not just a matter of food import
Russia, together with Canada and Belarus, is one of the world’s largest exporters of three major fertilizers: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
East African countries are fully dependent on fertilizer imports, as such, cereals’ prices are expected to surge, while the region’s food staple risks remaining in short supply.
Additionally, fertilizers’ prices are expected to soar due to high demand and the volatility of natural gas prices.
As a consequence, demand from farmers may reduce due to unaffordability. Therefore, the impossibility to use fertilizers combined with erratic rainfalls could be key drivers for the shrink of next season’s harvest.
In East Africa, Kenya is likely to suffer the most as it imports 15% of the total value of fertilizers from Russia and Ukraine.
What can be done for the long term?
The ongoing conflict has triggered multiple short-term shocks to the global market, driving uncertainty and instability.
It is unclear whether Ukraine will be able to harvest wheat in June and, for the moment, the Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea remain closed.
Furthermore, the government has banned wheat and vegetable oils exports to prevent a national food crisis, while Russia might encounter more problems due to sanctions.
These factors lead to the region’s depreciation, which could undermine agricultural productivity and further elevate production costs.
In order to avoid negative long-term impacts, favour economic growth, and enhance food security, East African countries have to diversify their food imports by looking for alternative suppliers. On top of building broader and more diversified market relations with other nations, they ought to strengthen their own domestic production capacities, too.
More open and transparent international markets allow for more efficient government decision-making.
Finally, local governments should enhance safety net programmes to protect vulnerable people and mitigate prices’ surge.
Data elaborations are by the author. Data source: FAO (https://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#home) accessed in April 2022.