Russia and Ukraine are arguably the breadbasket of the world. Russia has more agricultural land than all other European countries combined. Ukraine ranks first in Europe in terms of arable land and has 25 per cent of the world’s total volume of black soil, which is particularly fertile and has helped make the country a global agricultural powerhouse.
The war has sent shock waves through international food markets which were already at their highest levels since the 1970s
Together the two countries supply a third of the world’s wheat. Ukraine is the world’s largest exporter of sunflower oil and accounts for 16 per cent of global corn exports. The majority of these exports go through Odessa and other ports on the Black Sea, which are now closed to commercial shipping. This will have widespread humanitarian implications for Africa and other low- and middle-income countries.
Twenty-three African countries are dependent on Russia and Ukraine for more than half the imports of one of their staple goods. For some countries that dependency is much greater: 80 per cent of wheat imports in Sudan, Egypt, Tanzania, Eritrea and Benin; and more than 95 per cent of sunflower oil in Algeria, Sudan and Tunisia.
These effects are not likely to be short term, even if the war ends soon. Large areas of Ukraine’s agricultural production border Russia. The conflict could disrupt planting for 2022 while a ban on Russian exports of fertiliser could affect crop yields in African countries.
The war has sent shock waves through international food markets which were already at their highest levels since the 1970s. This week, the price of wheat futures [legally binding agreement for the delivery of wheat in the future at an agreed-upon price] were 80 per cent higher than six months ago. Corn was up 58 per cent. And, like dominos, the impacts are contagious. Buyers are switching from sunflower oil to palm oil, driving up prices for the west African staple which hit record highs in early March.
Meanwhile, crude oil prices have increased by a third in the last month. While this will benefit some oil exporting countries such as Nigeria and Angola, those benefits will be offset by the increased cost of imports.
Consequently, African families will experience a higher cost of living, which will make life harder, particularly for those in countries that have yet to recover from the economic effects of Covid-19. Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda and Egypt are particularly exposed because of how much they import.
Already 44 million people globally are on the brink of famine and an additional 232 million are just one step behind. The World Food Programme, which gets half of the wheat it distributes in humanitarian crises from Ukraine, may need to find other suppliers and the costs of responding to other crises such as Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen will increase.
This means that economic support to vulnerable countries is more critical than ever. And not just from a humanitarian perspective. It is also a stability, health security and a geo-political imperative.
We must not forget that the conditions that led to the Arab spring in 2010 included significant increases in the cost of living. Or that 2021 marked an increase in coups across west Africa, or that the continent has yet to vaccinate 77 per cent of its population against Covid-19; increasing the risk that new vaccine resistant variants may emerge and spread worldwide.
Yet most African countries do not have the fiscal means to respond to these crises. Forty per cent of countries on the continent are in, or at high-risk of, debt distress, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Forgetting the aftershocks of this war and the pandemic on the African continent would be a mistake
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic (which is not over) African leaders have felt abandoned by Europe and north America which monopolised vaccine supply and offered meagre financial support in the form of aid and debt relief. A promise to deliver $100 billion in support has yet to be delivered and due to US congressional politics may now be completely on ice.
Meanwhile, the West’s influence in the region is diminishing as China, Russia and other countries step up their economic, miliary and diplomatic presence. Half of the countries that abstained from a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine were African. Diplomats speculate that some African nations no longer see the West as a reliable partner and are themselves in a precarious situation, so made the tough decision to hedge their bets in case they need support from elsewhere.
For European leaders, political attention and financial resources are understandably diverted elsewhere. A resolution to the conflict in Ukraine is the top priority. The impending cost-of-living squeeze and refugee crisis in Europe will mean that few leaders are focused on Africa. Aid budgets will likely be diverted from Africa to support refugees and reconstruction efforts in Ukraine.
But forgetting the aftershocks of this war and the pandemic on the African continent would be a mistake. To avert famines, instability and a resurgence of coronavirus and turn the tide on diminishing western influence in the region now is the time for western governments to step up.