Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has worsened the food security crisis in many African countries, Human Rights Watch said today. Many countries in East, West, Middle, and Southern Africa rely on Russia and Ukraine for a significant percentage of their wheat, fertilizer, or vegetable oils imports, but the war disrupts global commodity markets and trade flows to Africa, increasing already high food prices in the region. Even countries that import little from the two countries are indirectly impacted by higher world prices for key commodities. Governments and donors should ensure affordable food access in Africa by scaling up economic and emergency assistance and social protection efforts. Otherwise, millions of people across the African continent may experience hunger.
“Many countries in Africa were already in a food crisis,” said Lena Simet, senior researcher on poverty and inequality at Human Rights Watch. “Rising prices are compounding the plight of millions of people thrown into poverty by the Covid-19 pandemic, requiring urgent action by governments and the international community.”
Under global and African human rights law everyone has the right to sufficient and adequate food. To protect this right, governments are obligated to enact policies and initiate programs to ensure that everyone can afford safe and nutritious food. Social protection systems that implement the right to social security for all can be key instruments for realizing the right to food.
Before the war in Ukraine, countries in East, West, Middle, and Southern Africa, including Angola, Cameroon, Kenya, and Nigeria, were already grappling with soaring food prices due to extreme climate and weather events such as floods, landslides, and droughts, and the Covid-19 pandemic, which disrupted production efforts and global supply chains. Since Russia’s invasion, global food prices have reached new heights. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Food Price Index, a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities, increased 12.6 percent from February to March. The March index is the highest it has been since the measure was created in the 1990s.
Russia and Ukraine are among the top five global exporters of barley, sunflowers, and maize, and account for about a third of the world’s wheat exports. Nigeria, the world’s fourth largest wheat importer, receives a fourth of its imports from Russia and Ukraine. Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda, and Sudan source more than 40 percent of their wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) buys half of the wheat it distributes around the world from Ukraine. With the war, supplies are squeezed, and prices rise, including for fuel, increasing the cost for transporting food in and to the region.
Human Rights Watch research on the food situation in Cameroon, Kenya, and Nigeria confirms that the rising food prices exacerbated by the war severely affect people’s livelihoods and food security in many African countries, especially where adequate social protection is lacking. The United Nations defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to food, which diminishes dietary quality, disrupts normal eating patterns, and can have negative consequences for nutrition, health and well-being.” In situations of severe food insecurity, people have a higher likelihood of running out of food and experiencing hunger, sometimes going days without eating.
In Cameroon, where more than half of the population was food insecure before the war, the cost of imported food is driving local food inflation, with bread and other staple foods increasingly out of reach to those with low incomes. In Kenya, where nearly 7 out of 10 people were food insecure before the war but only 1 out of 10 are covered by at least one form of social protection, the cost of cooking oil increased by 6.5 percent between February and March alone. In Nigeria, where food insecurity affected nearly 6 out of 10 before the war, year to year food inflation was 17.2 percent in March, with prices of bread, rice, and yams rising even faster, by more than 30 percent.
The WFP warned that if the war lasts beyond April, acute hunger may increase by 17 percent globally, with the sharpest increases expected in countries in East, West, and Southern Africa. They said that the total number of people in these regions experiencing acute food insecurity may rise by 20.8 percent, affecting 174 million people.
Before the war, the cost of nutritious foods and high rates of poverty and inequality kept healthy diets out of reach for 66.2 percent of people in the region, according to FAO estimates for 2020. Approximately 323.2 million people in Africa, or 29.5 percent of the population, ran out of food or went without eating that year. In West Africa and Middle Africa, the share of food insecure populations is even higher, 68.3 percent and 70 percent, respectively. The number of people affected by food insecurity continued to increase under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Data by the World Bank suggest that the Nigerian adult population suffering from moderate or severe food insecurity increased from 48.5 percent in 2019 to 75.5 percent in 2021. A Gallup World Poll before the war found that in Nigeria, 71 percent of the population lacked money for food in 2020, and in Kenya 69 percent. The poll also noted that the two countries imported approximately 31 percent and 34 percent of wheat from Russia and Ukraine, respectively, and with disruptions occasioned by the war, the situation can only become worse, with the risk of people being pushed into destitution, starvation, and premature mortality.
Food inflation particularly affects people in poverty, who spend more of their income on food even when consuming the lowest-cost options. The World Bank reported that in African cities food accounts for 60 percent of total expenditures for the bottom 20 percent of urban households and 35 percent for the wealthiest, making it hard to absorb price hikes. People forced to spend more on basic staples have to adapt by purchasing lower quality food, eating less, and reducing essential nonfood expenditures like health or education.
To prevent a hunger crisis, a rights-centered response is vital, Human Rights Watch said. Governments should act to protect everyone’s rights to an adequate standard of living, and in particular the right to food, by scaling up emergency food aid and expanding social protection systems. Investing in social protection might be a tall order for many African governments facing high debt levels and stretched fiscal positions after two years of the pandemic. A Global Fund for Social Protection should be set up to increase the level of support to low-income countries, helping them to establish and maintain social protection floors in the form of legal entitlements. Many social protection systems in African countries are at least in part financed and supported by the World Bank, which should ensure that support reaches everyone in need.
International financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank should refrain from pressuring countries to adopt fiscal consolidation measures that could further raise the cost of food or cut social spending.
Preventing a worsening food crisis requires international cooperation. Food exporting governments should carefully balance export restrictions to protect the right to food domestically while minimizing to the extent possible impacts on food supply and prices for other countries. The World Trade Organization (WTO) estimates that 40 percent of the increase in global wheat prices during the 2011 food crisis resulted from hoarding. Importing governments should work to ensure that nutritious food is affordable and accessible to everyone. In the long run, importing countries in Africa should boost local food production to increase food sovereignty and make food systems more sustainable. This requires support for climate change adaptation and resilience in the region.
“The war in Ukraine has led to more people across Africa going hungry. Governments should do everything in their power to mitigate the impact of rising food prices and avert a hunger crisis,” Simet said. “Expanding social protection and ensuring the supply of affordable food is critical to protecting the right to food for everyone.”
Food Insecurity and Social Protection
Social protection systems that implement the right to social security for all can be key instruments for strengthening people’s access to healthy foods and realizing the right to food. The WFP and academic research find social protection to be critical in emergency responses to acute situations of food insecurity and malnutrition, including during the Covid-19 pandemic.
To fulfill the right to social security, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UNCESCR), has said that states are required to ensure a minimum essential level of benefits to all individuals and families that will enable them to acquire at least essential food and other fundamental necessities of an adequate standard of living. Although the right to social security is not explicitly protected in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which is responsible for interpreting the Charter, has said that the right is “derived” from the joint reading of a number of other rights, including the right to food. The Commission has further said that the right requires states to “establish social safety nets to ensure that members of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups are able to survive even in times of severe resource constraints, including in periods of economic recession.”
Social protection also brings about longer-term improvements in access to healthy diets as it addresses poverty and inequality. Research by Human Rights Watch and other organizations found that universal social protection systems, designed to benefit everyone in a certain group, are more effective than means-tested targeted programs in reducing poverty and inequality and, by extension, to realizing people’s rights.
But food insecurity is increasing in many African countries in a context of minimal social protection. In 2020, 8 out of 10 Africans were not covered by any form of social protection, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Cameroon, where 55.8 percent of the population is food insecure, has no comprehensive social protection system. Only 7.1 percent of the population, and 2.2 percent of children, are covered by at least one social protection benefit, leaving most people in need without any support. Human Rights Watch research of Covid-19 relief measures in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda found that the support governments expanded or introduced during the pandemic was temporary, insufficient, or prone to corruption.
On April 12, Oxfam International warned that over a quarter of a billion more people could experience extreme poverty in 2022 because of Covid-19, rising global inequality, and the shock of food price rises supercharged by the war in Ukraine. On April 13, the heads of WTO, World Bank, IMF, and WFP, warned that “The fallout of the war in Ukraine is adding to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that now enters its third year, while climate change and increased fragility and conflict pose persistent harm to people around the globe. Sharply higher prices for staples and supply shortages are increasing pressure on households worldwide and pushing millions more into poverty. The threat is highest for the poorest countries with a large share of consumption from food imports….” On April 24, the African Development Bank Group President Dr. Akinwumi Adesina warned the rising costs of fertilizer, energy, and food could further worsen food access in Africa in the coming months.
Spikes of commodity prices in the early 2000s pushed millions of people into extreme poverty and prompted social unrest in many parts of the world, including in several African countries. Sudan’s cuts in wheat subsidies in 2018, part of economic reforms in line with IMF recommendations, doubled bread prices and sparked the protests that brought down the administration of Omar Al Bashir in April 2019. In Kenya, people took to the streets in 2021 to protest rising food prices and increases in the value added tax on cooking gas, fuel, and food, another IMF recommendation. In March 2022, Cameroon’s government expressed concern that the 60 percent reduction of wheat imported from Ukraine and Russia may cause a social crisis.
Governments have removed food or fuel subsidies in recent years and those that still maintain them, such as Nigeria, are under pressure by the IMF to reduce or cut them. The current crisis underscores the risks that such changes, by raising the price of food, can exacerbate food insecurity, particularly if they are not coupled with robust social protection that ensures an adequate income to all to purchase food.
The heads of the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and WFP recently urged the international community to support “financing of immediate food supplies, safety nets to address the needs of the poor, and for small farmers facing higher input prices.” They also urged governments to “avoid restrictive measures such as export bans on food or fertilizer that further exacerbate the suffering of the most vulnerable people … [and it is] especially important not to impose export restrictions on humanitarian food purchases by the UN’s World Food Program.”
Several countries in Africa rely on imported grains like wheat to meet the food needs of growing populations. The WFP and other organizations measure the extent to which countries rely on imported goods by calculating the share of a country’s supply of commodities that came from imports, referred to as Import Dependency Ratios. Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, and Tanzania have wheat ratios above 90, indicating that almost all their wheat supply came from imports, with the rest from local production. In 2019, the share of the supply from the Black Sea region ranged from 30 percent in Nigeria and Uganda, to 60 percent in Tanzania.
The war between Russia and Ukraine revealed that global food and energy markets are highly concentrated. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data suggest that for wheat, seven countries provide 86 percent of supplies to the global market, while three countries hold 68 percent of the world’s wheat reserves. For maize, just four countries account for 85 percent of export supplies while two countries hold 82 percent of the world’s maize reserves.
Wheat Import Dependency Ratio (IDR), 2021
Wheat imports, 2020
Share of wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine, 2020
Data sources: USDA and Observatory for Economic Complexity
Cameroon relies on imports to meet local demands for food and other essential goods. At the same time, local food production decreased with small farmers unable to compete with imported goods.
According to the Observatory for Economic Complexity, a data visualization site for international trade data created by the MIT Media Lab, wheat was the fifth most imported product in Cameroon in 2020. Cameroon imports wheat primarily from: Russia (US$81.8M), France (US$56.6M), Canada (US$42.1M), and Lithuania (US$2.48M). Russia is one of Cameroon’s main trading partners, occupying the 8th place in imports, which have been growing steadily over the past decade, increasing from 11.5 billion CFA in 2010 to 96.7 billion CFA in 2020. Wheat accounts for 65 percent of all imports from Russia, fertilizers follow with 17 percent, hydrocarbons with 8 percent, and iron, cast iron, and steel products with 4 percent.
Food price inflation is significant, averaging 7.6 percent between February 2021 and February 2022. According to Cameroon’s National Institute of Statistics (Institut National de la Statistique, or INS for short), the rise in food prices was spurred by rising costs of imported products, which increased by 10.5 percent. On March 21, Cameroon’s government said Russia’s war on Ukraine is responsible for a wheat shortage that has led to a 40 percent increase in the price of bread. The government said that close to half of its 26 million citizens who consume bread daily no longer have a regular supply, with the government encouraging local substitutes like cassava and yams to replace the wheat usually imported from Russia and Ukraine. However, bread made of cassava or yam flour is often unavailable for consumers.
On February 9, Cameroon’s association of millers, which represents 70 percent of the country’s market for flour, suspended deliveries of flour and wheat bran throughout the country due to the rising price of wheat. The price of a 50-kilogram bag of flour increased almost 16 percent from 19,000 CFA (US$32.97) to 22,000 CFA (US$38.18) in the major cities of Douala and Yaoundé and even higher in other parts of the country.
More than half of the people living in Cameroon (55.8 percent) are food insecure, and 26.7 percent are severely food insecure, according to data from FAO. Nearly 1.7 million people more people became acutely food insecure between 2019 and 2020, according to the latest analysis by Cadre Harmonisé, a tool to analyze food and nutrition situations in countries around the world. This was primarily due to Boko Haram violence in the Far North region, sociopolitical unrest in North-West and South-West regions, and the Covid-19 economic shocks, which disrupted trade flows and agricultural practices, deteriorated livelihoods, and displaced people.
Social protection coverage is very low in Cameroon, with 7.1 percent of the population covered by at least one benefit, and 2.2 percent of children. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the government extended the main social protection program, the Caisse Nationale de Prévoyance Sociale (National Social Security Fund), but Human Rights Watch found widespread corruption and a lack of transparency in the government’s use of funds intended to address the health and economic impacts of Covid-19.
Nigeria has among the highest number of people experiencing food insecurity, according to WFP. The organization projected that parts of the population in conflict affected areas are likely to experience starvation in the coming months. The global food and fuels supply chain disruption as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is expected to aggravate the situation, with food inflation at 17.2 percent year-on-year in March 2022, caused by wide-ranging price increases across items such as cereals, yam, meat, fish, and fruit.
The National Bureau of Statistics’ Selected Food Price Watch for February 2022 shows that the average price of 1 kilogram of beans (white, black eye, sold loose) rose on a year-on-year basis by 50.1 percent, bread increased by 34.11 percent, and yam tuber rose by 39.92 percent.
In 2021, Russia and Ukraine accounted for 31 percent of wheat imports into Nigeria. The constraints that the war has placed on these supply channels will most likely lead to an increase in the prices of by-products such as bread, which, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, millions of people consume.
Even before the Ukraine war, Nigerians were already experiencing fuel shortages which led to a surge in food prices. This began in February as a result of the importation of low-quality fuel with high levels of methanol, which had to be recalled as the authorities tried to import and distribute standard quality volumes. Nigeria received refined petroleum products from Russia, and the disruption in the global fuel supply chain as a result of the war has left the authorities struggling to bridge this gap as commodity prices in the country continue to soar.
These inflationary pressures are looming within the context of an economy that is on the rebound from a significant downturn as a result of the Covid‑19 pandemic, which contributed to about 13 percent inflation between 2020 and 2021 and left many people struggling to meet basic needs.
While the pandemic brought into focus Nigeria’s inadequate social protection system to help citizens through economic shocks, the authorities have made little or no effort to guarantee the right to social security and increase investments in this area to ensure citizens have a measure of protection from impending economic constraints.
The year-on-year inflation rate, as measured by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, was 5.56 percent in March 2022. The rise in overall inflation was mainly due to an increase in prices of food and nonalcoholic beverages (9.92 percent). The food items that increased most are: wheat (17.68 percent), cooking oil (35.15 percent), spinach (19.96 percent) and kale (20.15 percent).
In February 2022, people took to social media to protest against the increasing cost of food and high cost of living using the hashtag, #Lower Food Prices.
Kenya is a net importer of food, with cereal commodities such as wheat being one of the largest food imports in terms of both volumes and value. In 2020, Kenya produced 405 thousand tons of wheat, and imported 1.9 million tons. The Agriculture and Food Authority of Kenya reported that 90 percent of wheat consumed in the country is imported from Russia and Ukraine. Another input cost is the price of fertilizers, which increased by 70 percent compared with last year. The rise, which started in 2021, was mainly attributed to supply chain disruptions due to the pandemic. In 2020, Russia accounted for 17 percent of fertilizer imports to the country.
Oxfam and other international humanitarian organizations reported in March 2022 that “Kenya has suffered a 70 percent drop in crop production and has declared a national disaster with 3.1 million people in acute hunger, now in need of aid. Nearly half of all households in Kenya are having to borrow food or buy it on credit.”