Are we heading for “a storm of famine and a collapse of the world food system”, as António Guterres feared? If the alert is justified, we should emphasize the stability of our economies. Africa will not fall into famine but it must invest better in agriculture.
Since the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine, we have observed inflation in the price of agricultural products, which makes us think about the maintenance of our food systems. This, following the demand crisis in 2020, and the supply crisis in 2021 … What can be done to break the chaos and prevent the announced catastrophe?
Beyond the human aspect that gives this war a pathetic character, the dramatic effects on our agricultural ecosystem are already being seen. This event was an additional element that stimulated the inflationary spiral in the price of some products. Prices of urea, potash and phosphate at the cessation of exports from Ukraine and Russia are reaching new highs. These two countries provide about 25% of the international fertilizer trade.
Beninese economist, graduate of the University of Montreal, Chabi GN YAYI is a specialist in the implementation of agricultural and agri-food projects. He is the promoter of one of the largest agricultural cooperatives in northern Benin.
This is a blow for African agriculture. Our continental African giant, such as OCP (Office Cherifiens des phosphates) has been greatly affected because it supplies its own Russian potash to make NPK, an important fertilizer in the manufacture of cotton, for example. Urea alone reaches 1100 dollars per ton. Experts predict a shortage of 1 million tonnes of fertilizer in West Africa, which could translate into a production deficit estimated at nearly 20 million tonnes of grain (rice, corn, etc.) in May to December 2022.
Ukraine and Russia also account for 30% of the world’s wheat trade. The sanctions imposed on Russia as well as the blockade of Ukrainian ports had the effect of increasing the price of wheat flour, the main input in bread making. The price of wheat flour ranged from 200 euros before the crisis to more than 400 euros per tonne. The price of a baguette ranges from 125 F.CFA to 150 F.CFA in Libreville and Cotonou, while in Abidjan the government chose to keep its price at 150 francs, but reduce its weight by thirty grams, to 174 g.
Our governments should invest heavily in infrastructure for crop storage, water control and the mechanization of agricultural production. We need to work on our production model to increase yields and work in our domestic market.
And what about the Maghreb countries that rely on Russia’s wheat? Countries like Egypt, Algeria and Sudan need to immediately find ways to meet their domestic demand. Who remembers the 1977 bread riots in Egypt and Omar El Bechir’s recent departure to Sudan, following the rise in the price of baguettes, knows that this topic is a very burning topic in the region.
This pressure is also found in the edible oil market, more specifically in sunflower oil. By 2020, Ukrainian and Russian sunflower oil exports will reach almost 60% worldwide. There is so much bad news that the FAO says that the prices of agricultural products have reached record highs.
Do we have the right approach?
The shortage affects other products. We must not hide the fact that this crisis is closing outlets for a section of our agriculture such as cocoa, citrus fruits in South Africa, where Russia represents a constantly growing outlet.
Food production systems in Africa have been under intense strain over the past three years. The health crisis, the resulting economic crisis and the difficulties experienced by logistics systems around the world have a definite impact on our agri-food production.
We must tolerate these catastrophic analyzes by increasing the stability of our economies in Africa. Having substitute products based on cassava, millet and yam can keep us from falling into starvation. We must recognize that the weakness of our industrial exports, the low use of agricultural equipment and the availability of local labor for production have “preserved” us from disaster.
Yes, this grain crisis will have a definite impact on populations, but the effects will vary across the continent. Our low use of fertilizers in food products, the lowest in the world, is in this context an element mitigating our exposure to fertilizer prices. This is not the case with cash crops such as cotton where the impact would be severe if cotton prices did not evolve in the same proportion.
An agricultural diversification policy is needed to increase the share of food crops, which will reduce the food charge, which in 2019 reached $ 48.7 billion, according to the FAO.
Our governments should invest heavily in infrastructure for crop storage, water control and the mechanization of agricultural production. We must work on our production model to increase yields, work on our internal market because by 2050, there will be 2 billion Africans to feed, and we cannot continue to rely on the outside to do so. This crisis is an opportunity for our Africans to work on wheat flour substitute products such as sweet potato, cassava or plantain flour. This is an opportunity for us to develop regional projects such as the recent inauguration of the Dangote urea plant in Nigeria and also to harmonize our policies so that we can finally experience a real green revolution and build our autonomy in food.
By Chabi GN Yayi