The on-going Russo-Ukrainian War will have severe consequences for the whole world. Russia and Ukraine are the breadbasket of Europe and account for 30% of global wheat exports. Analysts predict that the disruption to the planting season (March and April) in Ukraine and the sanctions on Russia will drive wheat shortages later this year. The price of wheat has soared to record highs and increased by over 50% this month alone. The perfect storm of rising commodity prices, inflation and economies struggling to recover from the pandemic will trigger both a humanitarian and political crisis in many countries.

Global increase in wheat prices
Global increase in wheat prices

Top global producers of wheat

The top ten global producers of wheat are China (18%), India (13%), Russia (12%), USA (6%), France (5%), Australia (4%), Canada (4%), Pakistan (4%), Ukraine (4%) and Germany (3%). Even though Russia and Ukraine account for 15% of total global production of wheat, they are the biggest exporters.

Most wheat producers in the North Hemisphere were projected to have a decline in wheat production this year due to a drought, high fertiliser prices and market volatility. Australia is the only major producer which is expected to compensate for part of the shortfall from Ukraine.

Ukraine and Russia are two of the world's biggest wheat exporters.
Ukraine and Russia are two of the world’s biggest wheat exporters.

Despite having the potential to the breadbasket for the world, Africa produces a paltry 4% of the global total and is a net importer. Analysis from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) showed that African countries are heavily reliant on imports from Russia and Ukraine with Somalia, Benin, Egypt, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Tanzania, and Rwanda being the most vulnerable.

IFAD sounds the alarm on the impending humanitarian crisis

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) sounded the alarm about the growing risks of global hunger:

“I am deeply concerned that the violent conflict in Ukraine, already a catastrophe for those directly involved, will also be a tragedy for the world’s poorest people living in rural areas who cannot absorb the price hikes of staple foods and farming inputs that will result from disruptions to global trade. We are already seeing price hikes and this could cause an escalation of hunger and poverty with dire implications for global stability.”

Gilbert F. Houngbo, President of IFAD. Statement issued on 17 March 2022

Food shortages trigger civil unrest

An increase in the price of staple foods has historically been linked to civil unrest and political instability around the world. In Egypt, where bread is called ‘aish’ (which means life), an increase in the price of grains in 2008 eventually contributed to The Arab Spring, which led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Egypt also had a deadly bread riot in 1977 when the World Bank and IMF economy recovery programmes scrapped food subsidies.

Food prices are going up all around including sunflower oil which is also exported by Ukraine
Food prices are going up all around including sunflower oil which is also exported by Ukraine

In recent weeks, the rising food costs have sparked protests in Sudan, Iraq, Albania, Spain, and Panama. More countries are likely to follow in months to come. Governments need to proactively prepare.

What can African governments do to weather the storm?

Wheat was introduced in Africa by the Portuguese during the 16th century and is not a native crop. Wheat products such as bread, cereal, pasta, noodles, cake, and biscuits have increased in popularity due to a rising middle class, urbanisation and an adoption of Western culture. What will surprise some is that maize is also not a native crop even though it is commonly eaten as the main starch and known across the continent as pap, sadza, nshima or ugali.

African governments have two options to address the looming wheat shortage: import substitution or product substitution.

Pursuing an import substitution strategy would require leading wheat producers in Africa to capitalise on the upcoming wheat season between May and September. The question remains whether the top 10 producers have the capacity and political will to deliver more in 2022/23: Egypt (30%), Morocco (25%), Ethiopia (14%), Algeria (14%), South Africa (6%), Tunisia (5%), Sudan (2%), Kenya (1%), Libya (0.5%) and Zambia (0.4%). This approach will also be costly given rising fertiliser costs, the poor rainfall season in 2021/2 which will require additional irrigation systems and, the risk of breaking the conditions stipulated in World Bank-sponsored recovery programmes.

In this image, a group of African girls is sitting in a circle around a large plate of cereals, eating their meager vegan meal together with their hands
In this image, a group of African girls is sitting in a circle around a large plate of cereals, eating their meager vegan meal together with their hands

A product substitution strategy is likely to deliver quicker wins provided mass education campaigns are used to drive a shift away from wheat-based products to using traditional crops of millet, sorghum, cassava to make bread, cereals, beer and other staple foods. Some of these crops have been neglected in favour of maize and wheat and will also require an assessment of available supply.

What Africa needs is a long-term food security strategy that allows the continent to become self-reliant. Decades of talking about Africa’s potential need to give way to action. We can only hope that our leaders are up to the task.

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