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Africa’s food crisis pre-dates the war in Ukraine

Credit: Getty

March 7, 2022 - 1:28pm

Will the war in Ukraine also provoke a food crisis in Africa? Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine there has been significant media coverage on how the conflict could lead to food shortages in Africa. Coverage in CNN and African Arguments has pointed to the significant food imports which enter Africa — a net food importer — from both Russia and Ukraine. Given that a cumulative $6.9 billion worth of agricultural products are imported from these two countries, the war poses significant problems for the African continent.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to think that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is the sole cause for what may be one of the defining issues of 2022: massive inflation of basic goods and associated hunger to go with it. The fact is that for several months prior to the Russian invasion, analysts had been warning of major food price inflation and associated hunger in Africa.

The spiralling inflation of food prices was already noted on the global market by analysts five months ago. A report in October from the UN Food and Agriculture Service said that food prices had hit their highest prices for a decade. This was caused by supply bottlenecks that were linked to shortages of labour and raw materials produced when the global economy ground to a halt in 2020. This, combined with the global debt crisis in Low Income Countries resulting from the economic collapse of 2020, meant that governments could not insulate their populations from rising food prices.

Indeed, in spite of the attention now being given to the impact of the War in Ukraine on food prices in Africa, the past month has seen a slew of reports announcing that the crisis is already here. “We are sitting on something very explosive”, said Arif Husain, chief economist at the U.N.’s World Food Program, on 15th February, adding that 120 million people in Africa are now facing a food crisis. A report from Nigeria the following day noted that a shortage of fuel supplies meant the cost of transportation was doubling or tripling in some cities, creating severe inflation of 17% in the price of basic foods.

These shortages have already contributed to political disorder on the continent. There have been coups in Guinea (September 2021) and Burkina Faso (in January), and an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau last month. If fighting in Ukraine intensifies, we can expect further tensions.

All these conditions were thus in place well before the Russian invasion. Certainly, there’s no doubt that the conflict in Ukraine is exacerbating them: recent reports speak of a further surge in fuel prices on the continent, and the potential for associated price increases. But given how much this crisis relates to the global pandemic response in 2020, what we may also be witnessing is the beginning of Covid revisionism. That, in short, it’s a lot more comfortable for media outlets to blame impoverishment in Africa on Vladimir Putin, than to recognise that he has exacerbated an already catastrophic situation promoted by Western media and politicians over the past 2 years.


Toby Green is a professor of History and associate of the Global Health Institute at King’s College, London. The updated edition of his book, The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Thomas Fazi, is published by Hurst.

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hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

Last I checked, 86% of Zimbabwe’s wheat comes from Ukraine, and only 4% is grown locally. The author suggests that this “catastrophic situation [was] promoted by Western media and politicians over the past 2 years.”
How, exactly, did “Western media houses and politicians” cause Zimbabwe to have a catastrophic agricultural policy? I’m dying to know.

Last edited 2 years ago by hayden eastwood
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

I think the article was referring to the inflationary environment we were already in before the Ukraine conflict started – not the existing agricultural policies of country X, Y, or Z.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

There are many causes of food inflation in the region, none of which can be distilled down, as the author would like, to the simple factors he suggests.
The reality is that most of Africa has not been food sufficient in 50 years. This problem is worsening and much more to do with drivers he won’t mention – like populations doubling every 25 years,

Last edited 2 years ago by hayden eastwood
Frederick B
Frederick B
2 years ago

Wasn’t Zimbabwe the “bread basket of Africa” once upon a time? Oh, sorry – I was thinking of Rhodesia.

Last edited 2 years ago by Frederick B
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago
Reply to  Frederick B

Ooooo like, so racist? Probaly lbgt q ” herfensiffe” and climate change denying to… beware! The sandaloids will cancel you!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

Why doesnt Zimbabwe grow its own crops as Rhodesia did?

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago

I suspect that murdering the farm owners who knew large scale agriculture may have something to do with it?

Giles Toman
Giles Toman
2 years ago

They can’t get the people to do it.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
2 years ago

Zimbabwe’s dependence on Ukraine wheat may have more to do with the ethnic cleansing of the white farmers by Mugabe’s rĂ©gime and the consequent destruction of that country’s agricultural economy and capacity. The former ‘Breadbasket of Africa’ fed itself!

Last edited 2 years ago by Julian Pellatt
hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Julian Pellatt

Indeed, Julian, which is precisely why it is irritating for me to read an article imagining the problem to be foreign journalists and politicians rather than local governance.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
2 years ago

Hayden – I so enjoy reading your post on Unherd. You provide penetrating, intelligent insights and are fearless in expressing yourself in a world where most people now are too afraid to be intellectually honest. It would be good to re-establish email comms sometime, I think you have my email address so feel free to get in touch any time. Hamba gashle! Julian

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

“it’s a lot more comfortable for media outlets to blame impoverishment in Africa on Vladimir Putin, than to recognise that he has exacerbated an already catastrophic situation promoted by Western media and politicians over the past 2 years.”

Amen! And it must NOT happen.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Yeah they should be blaming African governments for destroying its capacity to feed itself. But that’s not woke.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

Perhaps Africa should advance a couple of thousand years when it comes to farming and food production, as most of the rest of the world appears to have managed… or is pointing out this fact ” racist”?

Helen E
Helen E
2 years ago

African countries’ populations currently double every 25 years. Kenya’s current population, for example, is at 55 million; in 1995, it was approx 25 million. https://www.populationpyramid.net/kenya/2021/
Perhaps the population factor should be included in discussions of food-and-resources shortages.

Last edited 2 years ago by Helen E
hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Helen E

Well said Helen, it should be, but is politically incorrect for both left and right to discuss this.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Last few sentences lurching off into floating generalisation. The West, the area that everone wants to live in, is wrong again.

Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

And why does ‘everyone want to live in the West’?
Because the West has been wealthy.
Why has the West been wealthy?
Because for almost 500 years it plundered almost every corner of the Earth taking whatever it wanted and killing everyone who objected.

The West decided what was right and what was wrong.
In case you’re wondering what ‘right’ really meant – it was the entitlement of Caucasians to whatever they wanted. ‘Wrong’ meant trying to stop them taking whatever they wanted.

POWER determines everything and the West exercised it’s POWER to enrich itself.
The only question in geopolitics worth asking now is:
WHITHER POWER?

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

Name me one Siberian tribe. Can’t? One reason is that many were violently wiped out by Russian imperialism during centuries of brutal expansion. As for the Ottoman Empire and Chinese Ming suppression of Tibet and Mongolia and Korea…

Giles Toman
Giles Toman
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Branagan

Our European ancestors had the determination and vision to build much of the “modern world”. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Jeez this is just rubbish, failing to reference the destruction of agricultural capacity, because it was operated by white farmers, in the last 30 years, accompanied by an explosion in populations across the continent.
Toby Green, you need to do much better than this.