This is an expanded version of my Baltimore Sun column of May 11, 2022.
Russia’s unconscionable war on Ukraine could likely ignite a food catastrophe in parts of the world already dealing with shortages due to drought and the long-term effects of the pandemic. Staff from Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are seeing first-hand the war’s impact on the food supply in East Africa.
CRS and other aid groups recently called on the Biden administration to provide more humanitarian funding to deal with the secondary effects of the war. “While the war in Ukraine demands our attention, we must not forget the multiple looming hunger crises in places like Yemen, Afghanistan and in the Horn of Africa,” CRS said in a statement last week.
By email from their stations in Kenya, two of Catholic Relief’s experts in agriculture and food security, Shaun Ferris and Margaret Kahiga, answered my questions about the brewing crisis.
What you’re seeing in East Africa and Kenya, regarding food shortages?
Kahiga: Food prices are rising rapidly. We are seeing a shortage of wheat, cooking oil, rice and other food commodities — mostly food commodities which are largely imported. Statistics from the government of Kenya show that, in April, national inflation hit a seven-month high of 6.47%, up from 5.56% in March. This is putting even more pressure on families trying to feed themselves.
Ferris: The food security situation in East Africa and Kenya is building towards an inflection point. We’re seeing the prices of everyday household items spike to unimaginable rates. The price of eggs has risen by 30% in just three months. This is because feed prices have increased by 70%. The cost of raising chickens has increased by more than 50%. The price of corn, which is the main food, has increased by 25% in three months. Bread has increased by 20%. All of these rapidly rising costs are affecting the poorest and most vulnerable people who are already living on a shoestring budget. For example, in urban areas, families were spending 20-25% of their income on food last year. Now that food bill is more than 30% of their income. Compare that to the United States, where people on average spend about 5% to 6% of their income on food. With this sudden rise in costs, families in Kenya and the East Africa region must quickly find extra money to meet their daily needs, or they have to make choices in the types of food they buy. Kenyans are already shifting from diets that included more vegetables and meat to more grains with their corn meal.
What we’re seeing are the effects of four simultaneous crises: COVID, which over two years of lockdowns and restrictions degraded the business sector and severely eroded demand; drought, which is the worst we’ve seen in 40 years; regional political instability; and the Ukraine war, which is accelerating the cost of key goods such as fuel, fertilizer and imported food. All of this is accelerating inflation.
The main problem is that nobody knows how high these costs are going to go and for how long people will have to manage with these historically high food prices.
What have weather conditions been like where you’ve been working over the last few months?
Ferris: East Africa is suffering from its worst drought in 40 years. In the worst areas, where the livestock live, it looks a bit like what you would think the Dust Bowl probably looked like. There is no greenery. No grass. No pasture for the animals. When you walk on the land, it crunches under your feet, because the grass is desiccated. Trees have no leaves. It feels barren. It feels scary.
This is having a massive effect on farming, as delayed rains mean crops are not being planted. The long dry season is having a particularly damaging effect on the livestock sector. Kenya has lost 1.5 million cattle in the past season. Ethiopia has lost more than 2 million livestock. The problems of the livestock sector have been building over several years, with four successive poor rainy seasons. Each time there is a deficit in rain, the farming communities produce less. Slowly, their assets are degraded until they are not able to respond to additional challenges. This season, millions of livestock did not survive the drought. Such a mass casualty event wipes out a community’s assets, especially communities that survive by sheep or cattle herding. This sudden loss of livelihoods also leads to huge tensions between communities over water and the loss of pasture. Such tensions have spilled over into severe conflicts in northern Kenya, and competition for water and grazing are driving conflict in other pastoralist areas.
Although it’s raining in Kenya now, as the seasonal rains slowly track northwards, there are areas in Ethiopia and other Horn countries where rains are yet to arrive. Ironically, as some countries suffer from severe drought, other countries in the region are dealing with massive flooding.
We know what we’re seeing to be the effects of climate change. Yet alarmingly, the impacts of climate change will only worsen in the years to come unless action is taken at the global level to cut emissions and ramp up efforts to help these communities adapt.
Kahiga: Northern Kenya in particular is experiencing dry weather conditions and extreme high temperatures. Many of the people who live in that region are pastoralists and are reporting massive deaths to their livestock from starvation, heat and dehydration. During a typical agricultural season, the most reliable months for rainfall are March, April and May. This has not been the case this year. The rains have been very poor and failed in some regions. The situation is expected to worsen in the coming months as we enter the dry season from June to September. Many more communities are migrating in search of pasture and water. In some of the communities I visited recently, the majority of the men had migrated seeking pasture for their cattle. Women are then parenting alone and have to find food to feed their families.
I assume no imports of grain are coming from Ukraine or Russia. Is that true?
Kahiga: As far as we know no imports are currently coming from Ukraine or Russia. This is stretching local markets and driving up prices for staple foods.
Ferris: Right now, I think the Governments and major private sector actors are all figuring out the best next steps. They will be looking for all alternative sources of grains, food oils and fertilizers and probably fuel sources. Getting produce out from Ukraine and Russia is very difficult. It’s particularly difficult for Ukraine as most of their goods were shipped out through the southern seaports like Mariupol and Odessa. It’s virtually impossible to move the Ukrainian commodities out of the ports. Shipping prices, by the way, are also sky-high and rising. Clever and agile logistics, as with all wars, is going to play a major role in how Ukraine and Russia tackle their future exports. Ukraine is going to have to truck out their commodities, if they have any harvest to sell.
There is also the problem that many traders do not want to establish financial deals with Russia because of the sanctions and major commodity traders are concerned about punitive fines if they fall foul of sanctions laid down by the European Union and the United States. As one of the European traders said last week, whilst trade with Ukraine is unreachable, trade with Russia is untouchable.
Kahiga: Kenya is a net importer of wheat so the situation in Ukraine is driving up wheat prices and also the price of fuel. In the last month there have also been fuel shortages in Kenya leading to high fuel prices. This has affected even the cost of goods manufactured in Kenya as the manufacturing industry relies on fuel to produce goods. This multiplicity of impacts is pushing up the general cost of living.
Ferris: Uganda, the country right next to Kenya, imports 55% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Tanzania to the south of Kenya, imports more than 60% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, and Sudan has the highest levels of imports, with over 65% from Russia.
If a country like Uganda imported 500,000 metric tons of wheat in 2021, that figure may fall to 300,000 metric tons in 2022.
There is also the problem of basic availability and whether importing companies can find wheat at an affordable price. As goods and shipping costs escalate, the overall costs dramatically increase. Prices of foreign exchange rise, banks increase rates and countries are put in a highly constrained situation.
Analysts think that fertilizer prices may start to fall in 2023, but with rising wheat deficits globally, those prices could be even more severe. This means that as consumers of bread shift to other products, and all of the substitutes also rise.
So the fertilizer supply is also a big problem for farmers.
Ferris: Fertilizer prices have also doubled. Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are major exporters of fertilizers. This means governments and farmers are buying less fertilizer and some farmers are trying, where possible, to switch to manure, if it’s available. But that’s very limited.
Countries that are setting aside budgets for fertilizer will need two to three times the amount of money they set aside in 2021 to pay for the prices in 2022. This means they will buy perhaps 25-30% of previous years levels … and so yields in the next season will be lower. That scenario will be played out across the region: Lower yields, less agro-chemicals to protect the crops and prices continuing to rise.
In addition to the price of fertilizer, the price of petrol has also been on the rise. Most governments in the region are paying a subsidy for the fuel in an attempt to keep prices down. If they are unable to maintain this subsidy, this will literally add fuel to fire.
It sounds pretty bleak. Where is this going?
Ferris: Prices are already at historically high levels, as shown in all the recent reports from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). And they’ll continue to rise until the Ukraine conflict subsides. The main concern for organizations like Catholic Relief Services is that the trend of rising prices, from production zones through markets to the people in East Africa, is still building as the war goes on. So, while most of the news headlines rightly focus on the horrendous suffering in Ukraine and the surrounding region, a more silent crisis in East Africa is building to a tipping point.
Based on a lot of incoming analysis, there is general agreement on a list of fragile or vulnerable countries that are dependent on food, fuel and fertilizer imports, have limited food stocks, political fault lines and populations that don’t have sufficient incomes to spend through the crisis.
It is vital that fragile countries which are already facing rapidly rising prices get two types of support. First, they need financial support to reduce the impact of rising food prices. This may come in the form of either humanitarian food aid to the most vulnerable, or financial support for imports. Second, they need a continued and increased investment in agricultural development projects like the ones implemented by organizations like CRS. These projects enable farmers in these countries to ramp up production over the next two to four years to meet the drastic increase in need.
At the end of the day, at CRS, we believe Congress should immediately provide a substantial increase in humanitarian funding for East Africa, and other places where hunger is ballooning. As we said in a recent statement on the matter, we fear that without action to address some of these secondary impacts of the war, global and economic stability could suffer as a result. In that sense, the stakes couldn’t be any higher.