Rising food, fuel, and fertilizer prices could ignite political tensions in Africa
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Rising food, fuel, and fertilizer prices could ignite political tensions in Africa

African countries, which are still dealing with the pandemic’s economic effects, are now confronted with another economic shock from Russia’s war in Ukraine. Exports of wheat, fertilizer, and other agricultural products from Russia and Ukraine have been disrupted. This is driving up the prices of these commodities in African countries, making life for ordinary citizens, including farmers, a lot harder.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is severely impacting food security globally, and especially in many African countries that rely on wheat imports. Russia and Ukraine are among the top exporters of wheat, barley, sunflowers, and maize. Dubbed the world’s breadbasket, the two countries account for nearly one-quarter of global wheat exports. But war-induced disruptions in the agricultural sector in Ukraine and heavy economic sanctions on Russia are raising the price of wheat.

Inflationary impact of the war

Rising consumer prices are likely to impact the countries that are most heavily dependent on agricultural imports from Russia and Ukraine. African countries imported agricultural products worth $4 billion from Russia in 2020. Wheat accounted for nearly 90% of imports, while sunflower oil accounted for 6%. Egypt accounted for nearly half of these imports, followed by Sudan, Nigeria, Tanzania, Algeria, Kenya, and South Africa. Cape Verde, Togo, Namibia, Burundi, Madagascar, Rwanda, and Benin are among African countries that import almost all their wheat from Russia, while Tunisia, Libya, and Somalia are most dependent on wheat from Ukraine.

A disruption in the wheat supply is likely to increase prices, which have risen by a whopping 50% already, the highest level in 14 years. This will affect African countries’ ability to import wheat and to produce wheat-based products, such as bread. Ultimately, the prices will be passed on to consumers, with significant impact. Food accounts for 40% of consumer spending in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the IMF.

African exports to Russia and Ukraine, while not significant in terms of value and quantity, will also be impacted. Kenya exported goods and services worth about $80 million to Russia in 2020, and imported goods and services worth about $380 million.

The inflationary impact of the war will damage African economies, says Yvonne Mhango, head of Africa research at Renaissance Capital in Johannesburg. Countries where Russian companies run mining operations, such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Nigeria, will also be affected.

Impact on local farmers

Russia is the third largest exporter of potash, a key ingredient in fertilizer, after Canada and Belarus. Fertilizer prices in Kenya have doubled from about $30 a bag last year to roughly $60 a bag today. Farmers in Kenya’s agricultural zones are complaining that this dramatic increase will significantly push up their production costs. This will likely lead to smaller crop yields, further impacting food prices and food security.

“An interlinked and longer-term fallout is the rising cost of fertilizer on domestic food production,” says Robert Shaw, a public policy analyst based in Nairobi. “Kenya’s maize basket of Trans Nzoia and North Rift traditionally plants around now. This year the planting season has been severely disrupted by the rocketing price of fertilizers.” Shaw says that reduced maize production this year will force Kenya to import maize, whose cost is are already at a 10-year high.

Rising fuel prices are also deeply impacting farmers. Kenya’s Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority recently announced that it is discontinuing a fuel subsidy scheme introduced by the government a few months ago. The price of petrol and diesel will increase by 5 Kenya shillings a litre. Farmers in Kenya’s food-growing areas say that the hike in fuel prices will impact their ability to use farm machinery and transport. This will further reduce their ability to grow sufficient crops this year.

All this is happening at time when countries in the East Africa and Horn regions are facing food insecurity due to low rainfall. The United Nations estimates that 20 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Djibouti face hunger due to the longest drought in four years, which has killed livestock and ruined harvests.

Social unrest and political turmoil

The high cost of living and increasing hardship compounded by poor crop yields in African countries could prove to be destabilizing factors, leading to social unrest or political turmoil on the continent.

“Conditions that led to the Arab Spring in 2010 included significant increases in the cost of living,” explains David McNair, head of Global Policy at the ONE Campaign. And 2021 already saw an increase in military coups across West Africa. McNair says that to avert political instability in Africa, Western nations must step up their assistance to African countries. This includes efforts to tackle the pandemic: Africa has yet to vaccinate 77% of its population against COVID-19, which increases the risk that new vaccine-resistant variants may emerge and spread worldwide.

African countries facing elections and other potentially destabilizing events this year could be particularly impacted. Shaw says that “stagflation” (persistent high inflation accompanied by high unemployment and slow economic growth) is likely to exacerbate social and political tensions in Kenya, which is set to hold a highly competitive and combative presidential election in August.

“Metaphorically speaking, it is akin to throwing a Molotov cocktail into a crowd of people.”

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