Since the Russo-Ukrainian conflict broke out in February 2022, economies across the African continent have borne the brunt of the war due to disruptions to supply chains of fertilizer and grain, putting already vulnerable livelihoods at risk.
By Arnold Munthali, August 5th 2022
The flatlands of Karonga district in northern Malawi are dotted with small demarcated plots of land that sustain the livelihoods and hold the hopes of thousands of people such as farmer Felix Petros Mkorongo. Mkorongo grows rice, maize and cassava on his small pockets of land, but it is rice which gives him a good return on the market. He fears, however, that rising costs of fertilisers may put paid to his efforts as they are eating into his profit margins. He has watched the prices of fertilisers rise in recent years, with the price of urea, more than doubling from an equivalent of $21 per 50kg bag in 2020 to almost $55 in 2022. And he is expecting the worst.
“I want to stop growing maize altogether because I cannot afford its fertiliser,” Mkorongo says.
Across the border in Tanzania, farmers are similarly faced with the steep rise in fertiliser prices, putting the livelihoods of farmers at risk.
The refrain about rising costs of food and farm inputs is all too common and ringing loudly all across Africa. Fragile economies across the continent have borne the brunt of the war between Ukraine and Russia which has disrupted supply chains of fertilizer and grain, putting already vulnerable livelihoods at risk. The two former soviets recently shook hands on a deal that allows Ukraine to resume exports of grain that had been stuck in its ports for months, to ease the food crisis and hopefully bring down the prices of grain across the world, just as Russia, a major exporter of fertiliser, gained the passage of way through the Black Sea. But the development may be small comfort for large swathes of the African continent reliant on staple foods such as maize due to their dependence on organic fertiliser.
A recent webinar on the effects of disasters and shocks such as the Russo-Ukrainian War on Africa’s food systems, which was organised by the Regional Network of Agricultural Policy Research Institutes (ReNAPRI), painted a gloomy picture of the food situation on the continent in the wake of the conflict, although David Laborde of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) observedthat food prices were already on the rise before the war in Ukraine due to various factors such as climate change, demand, COVID-19 disruptions and policies. The view was shared by Dr William Chadza, executive director for Mwapata, an agricultural research think-tank in Malawi, and Dr Zena Mpenda of Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture who both observed that the food situation in their respective countries was already on the knife edge, but the war in Ukraine has exposed the continent’s vulnerability to external shocks, with grain shortages and fertiliser increases recorded across the continent. Chadza warned that Malawi – and much of the continent – must brace for tough times ahead irrespective of the outcomes of the Ukrainian war because even if the conflict ended today the effects would be felt for a long time. Maize, largely dependent on inorganic fertiliser, is a key determinant of food security in Malawi, but the country does not import fertiliser from Russia. But the domino effect of the global deficit of fertiliser has affected its price, potentially resulting in low production and slower economic growth.
“The price of fertilizer has risen by almost 70% since February when war broke out between Ukraine and Russia, which has laid bare some of the deep-rooted problems of Malawi’s agri-food systems,” he observed.
On the other hand, Tanzania imports millions of tonnes of wheat (about 60%) from both Russia and Ukraine, with wheat costing $253 per tonne before the war but rising to $366 after the conflict broke out. But the country imports fertiliser through the Black Sea, and due to the conflict, Tanzania has witnessed an increase in fertiliser of between 80% and 100.
In Ghana, the conflict has indirectly effect on its economy with food inflation rising from 14% to between 27 and 32%, said Dr Andrew Agyei-Holmes from Ghana. “The Ghanaian food systems has been affected indirectly, the fact that the transportation of agricultural produce depends on hydrocarbons means that the increases in fuel prices has been passed on to transporters who have passed it on to people who were engaged in the food business,” he explained.
In Nigeria, Professor Adegbenga Adekoya of University of Ibadan observed that the rise in petroleum prices due to the conflict has affected the agriculture sector as most of the machinery is diesel including the distribution of food. The conflict has also affected food prices and importation of raw materials for manufacturing fertilisers as Nigerian imports potash from Russia.
An opportunity for solutions
During a press conference in July when Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara visited Pretoria, South Africa’s leader Cyril Ramaphosa bemoaned Africa’s vulnerability to extraneous conflicts such as the conflict in Ukraine and challenged the continent to think by itself: “Do we want to continue for years to come to rely, for our grains, for our fertilisers, on that part of the world? Or should we say this conflict is a wake-up call like Covid became a wake-up call to many of us on the African continent to start producing our own vaccines?”
From encouraging food diversification and providing subsidies to diversification of trade relationships to avoid putting all eggs in one basket and manufacturing of fertilisers to reduce costs of fertilisers, governments across the continent have left no stone unturned to come up with solutions to multi-faceted challenges such as adverse climate, poor soil health and management, and extraneous factors such as conflicts in the Ukraine which have all conspired to disrupt Africa’s food security.
In March, Nigeria established a fertiliser factory with an annual capacity of 3 million metric tons, even though it faced teething problems of securing potash from Russia.
“The government has started an emergency purchase of potash from Canada,” explained Professor Adegbenga Adekoya. Chadza was hopeful the crisis emerging from the conflict would provide food for thought to the Malawi government, which has a long-term plan of establishing a fertiliser plant to mitigate against such shocks in future. “In a broader sense, we are hoping the crisis is likely to change the political and economic calculations regarding food and fertilizer self-sufficiency for the country. In the short term, the government is considering purchasing fertilizer from manufacturers in bulk by using one of the state owned enterprises,” Chadza explained.
The Tanzanian government, meanwhile, has responded to the crisis by introducing subsidies on fertilisers to cushion farmers against the hostile fertiliser prices.
In Ghana, the government has offered a different exchange rate for trading crude oil to ensure the commodity is available at an affordable price, in order to protect the agricultural value chain.
“The government plans to review some of the taxes on crude, which have a direct impact on the prices of food,” said Agyei-Holmes. He, however, cautions governments against throwing away the proverbial baby with the bathwater in the face of the unprecedented crisis and advises the government of Ghana not to panic and “throw away all its plans because sometimes in the heat of times we may discard we have planned in the last three or four years and begin to focus on ad hoc processes which do not yield so much result”.
ReNAPRI is an African owned and led network of think tanks located in central, east, west and southern Africa which generate research in support of policy making at national, regional and continental levels in Africa.