How the Ukraine Invasion Impacts Food Security in Africa

By Kimberly Flowers

The war in Ukraine has had far-reaching impacts on food security and systems in Africa from the inability to import staple crops to serious long-term implications of fertilizer restrictions. DevWorks International convened a group of experts to discuss the repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of the Society for International Development’s annual conference in Washington, DC on May 26, 2022.

More than a third of African countries depend heavily on Russia and Ukraine for wheat imports. Dr. Apollos Nwafra, Vice President for Policy and State Capability​ for the Alliance for Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA), explained that 20 African countries import 90% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. He said that strategic food reserves are being depleted quickly in many African countries and that he is “very worried” that the crisis will hit hard by the next planting season, particularly because farmers cannot afford fertilizer.

“Farmers are no longer using fertilizer because the prices have doubled. If farmers have no incentive to use fertilizer, we are likely to see very low yields next season,” Nwafra said. “The worst has yet to come.”

Dr. Joeseph Glauber, a Senior Research Fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), reminded the audience of the importance of affordability even if availability is not the issue. While the areas most affected by the blockage of Ukraine ports have been North African countries, he said, “everyone is being affected by high prices. Some commodities are up 40%. Everyone is feeling those higher prices.”

Many systemic problems with the food system in Africa predate Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Tamzin Hudson, a consultant from South Africa who works with the Africa Futures and Innovation Program, explained, “Africa is already in crisis. There are 281 million people in Africa who do not have enough food to eat each day and nearly three-quarters of the population cannot afford nutritious food.” There are also the shocks from climate change, a severe drought in East Africa, and the worst locust plague in 70 years. Nwafra also emphasized the toll of the pandemic, stating that the Covid-19 crises dropped agricultural productivity by 18% and increased hunger by more than 20%.

“Fixing this crisis is about fixing the fundamental vulnerabilities of the system.” Dr. Bram Govaerts​, Director General of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), said. He laid out his proposed solutions: in the short term, get the grain flowing, mitigate further food security shocks by boosting production in existing high and low productivity areas by applying demand and supply side market incentives, and look at flour substitution; in the medium-term, increase local, regional, and global resilience of wheat and cereal supply, support self-sufficiency pathways combined with open trade, provide comprehensive technical support for production systems, and mainstream independent crop monitoring capacity; and in the longer term, shift from efficiency to resiliency in the overall agri-food system.

Others agreed with his emphasis on resiliency. “We need to think about resilient food and agricultural systems. These shocks are not going to end. We need to be prepared. This is where development partners can support, where the private sector needs to play a role, and where the government needs to show leadership,” Nwafra from AGRA said.

Nwafra added that solutions also include looking at alternatives to wheat, like maize and millet, granting short-term incentives to the private sector to boost markets, and governments giving smart subsidies for fertilizers and other inputs.

The centrality of data and the need for strong data systems became a recurring point. “We have more data and predictive power than ever,” Bram said. “It is my dream to create an intersection between data and research-oriented organizations and those of you on the ground. Because right now there’s a gap,” he added. Hudson reiterated the need for data to understand what is working well and in order to take a more regional approach. “We need an integrated, continental model. The fundamental importance of partnerships must be stressed, as well as the role of local governance,” she said.

Nwafra pointed to the development of a regional food balance sheet that will strengthen data systems and give political leadership a credible data to make informed decisions. The project is being done in collaboration with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), which has 21 member states, and the Economic Community of West Africa States, which has 15 members. The data collected should help ensure food moves from surplus to deficient areas. He also reminded his fellow panelists that agriculture is a driver of economic growth in Africa and, thus, strong data systems foster growth and inform better trade policies.

Like previous global food crises, there has also been a rise in protectionist trade policies. Countries want to protect their own and avoid the civil unrest that is often linked to food insecurity. Beyond self-serving trade policies, though, one of the issues with the Ukraine war is simply keeping trade moving out of Ukraine’s ports, especially because the system is not set up to transport wheat over land. “The sooner we can get [the Black Sea port] back up, the sooner we will have a recovery,” Glauber said. He also emphasized that trade can be a big help getting food from one region to another, that systems need to be flexible with a number of suppliers, and that export restrictions hurt domestic producers.

When asked if he had advice for international development practitioners, Bram said it was imperative for development partners to deploy the agricultural innovations that are already available. He also urged there to be a greater intersection between research institutions and humanitarian and development interventions in order to strengthen resilience.

Glauber from IFPRI said there are a lot of similarities with today’s crisis to the global food crises of 2007-2008 and 2010-2011, but that fertilizer prices are much higher. He worries that one of the impacts of fertilizer trade restrictions will be future rice production in Asia. He also emphasized that a war creates a huge uncertainty in terms of when it might end and how much it will impact both existing and future crops. “In the best of worlds, it will take 18 months to see prices regulate.”

The panelists ended by giving advice on sources they use to keep up-to-date on the issue. Several mentioned the challenge of misinformation and that it is imperative to look at a variety of sources. Some gave specific recommendations, such as reading reports from the Agricultural Market Informaton Systems (AMIS), IFPRI, and the book The Future of Africa.

“Food security is fundamental to Africa’s overall development and to have a healthy, economically productive, and peaceful society,” Hudson said.

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