The Russian-Ukrainian crisis highlights Africa’s need to diversify its sources of wheat

Crop yields are relatively low in Africa compared to major wheat producing regions

The war between Russia and Ukraine has highlighted the extent to which the world’s wheat supply depends on these two countries. For example, recently released the UN report shows a sample of 25 African countries that depend on wheat imports from Russia or Ukraine. Of this group, 21 import most of their wheat from Russia.

Between 2018 and 2020, Africa imported $3.7 billion worth of wheat (32% of the continent’s total wheat imports) from Russia and an additional $1.4 billion from Ukraine (12% of the continent’s wheat imports). continent).

It is crucial for African countries to diversify their sources of wheat for two main reasons.

First, wheat is an important component of diets. Not having enough brings the threat of hunger and political instability.

Second, Africa’s dependence on Russian wheat imports will influence major political and military decisions. Given the dependence of some African countries on Russian wheat, this could have influenced their vote on the two UN General Assembly resolutions regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In both cases, a surprising number of countries either supported Russia or remained neutral. One of the reasons for this could be that they would not want to disrupt relations with a good supplier.

Over the centuries, the supply of wheat has taken into account the political and strategic decisions and the security of many countries.

Take the ancient Greek city-state of Athens: in the 5th century BC. BC, Athens had to feed an ever-growing population. Officials turned to parts of Egypt, Sicily, Syria and the Black Sea region to fill the Athenian granaries – a pattern of expansion and trade that has been repeated often in world history.

Nazi Germany dealt with food shortages through its Hunger Plan – a policy of seizing food from the Soviet Union to feed German soldiers and civilians.

During the Cold War, the United States used its advantage as a major wheat-producing nation to influence policy makers and cement state support. Wheat exports have accompanied US military deployments around the world.

In 2023, the geopolitics of wheat is once again in the spotlight with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

As foreign relations experts – with a focus on Africa Political economics and trade and agriculture in Africa – we wanted to highlight the dependence of many African countries on wheat supplies from these two warring nations, and we wanted to highlight the need for the region to diversify its sources of wheat.

World wheat supply

Russia and Ukraine are among the the top 10 wheat producers in the world (which are mainly based in the North) and among the top five wheat exporters. Together the two account for 27 percent of the world wheat trade.

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, world food prices were already rising. This was mainly due to below-average harvests, increased transport costs and supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19.

The Russian-Ukrainian war has further aggravated global uncertainties, making the agri-food market jittery, getting even worse world food prices and prices of agricultural commodities, such as fertilizers.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, concerns over disruptions in wheat supplies, especially in the Black Sea region, have significantly increased wheat prices. Between January and February 2023, world wheat prices increased by 2.1 percent.

A rise in wheat prices can have significant repercussions given the importance of bread in daily diets around the world.

The African impact

Rising food prices pose a double threat: they increase levels of food insecurity and poverty.

Wheat is widely consumed throughout the African continent. Between 2000 and 2009, in sub-Saharan Africa alone, wheat consumption increased at the rate of 0.35 kg/year, ahead of corn and rice. It has become an important crop and staple food due to rapid population growth, increased urbanization, and changes in food preferences. African consumers use wheat for easy and fast food, such as bread, cookies, pasta, noodles and porridge.

In addition, some African countries, such as Morocco, Egyptand Sudan — provide bread subsidies to poor communities to alleviate hunger and malnutrition.

Although wheat is widely consumed across the African continent, crop yields are relatively low compared to major wheat producing regions, especially in the North. The reasons range from extreme weather conditions to water scarcity, poor soil quality and poor irrigation systems.

As a result, African nations depend on imports to meet wheat demand and needs. For example, in the 2020/2021 marketing year, African wheat imports reached 54.8 million metric tonswhile continental wheat production stood at 25.7 million metric tons.

Urgent lessons

The situation highlights the need for African countries to diversify their wheat imports and invest in expanding domestic production capacity.

For example, Egypt — which depends on imports of Russian and Ukrainian wheat as its first the largest importer of the crop — will rely on its wheat reserves which are expected to last until the end of 2023. The hope is that it will be able to find other suppliers by then. If Egypt fails to secure further wheat imports, sharp increases in the cost of wheat could severely affect the Egyptian government’s ability to maintain bread prices at their current subsidized level.

Egyptian history presents its current government with a warning of what to expect if bread prices continue to rise. In 1977, an attempt by then-President Anouar Sadat to raise the price of bread triggered deadly riots who did not calm down until the decision was reversed. Coupled with the country’s historic protests associated with the Arab Spring, such warnings are hard to dismiss.

National, regional and continental organizations have recognized the urgent need for Africa to increase its wheat production to avoid these scenarios.

In the aftermath of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the African Development Bank is on a mission to raise $1 billion to help 40 million African farmers use climate-resilient technologies and increase their yields of wheat varieties and other heat-tolerant crops.

hard truths

In the vote on the two UN General Assembly resolutions demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine, just over half of African votes were in favor of Ukraine, while others abstained or voted against the resolutions. Most reports on split voting in Africa focus on military and political alliances, as well as political ideological trends. The power of food – and wheat in particular – has been largely overlooked.

In addition to trying to understand the motivations behind African countries’ voting at the UN, the Russian-Ukrainian crisis has, more importantly, shown that many African countries need to diversify their wheat imports and invest in order to become self-sufficient. This must be done with some urgency to protect against global shocks – whatever their origin.

Mandira BagwandeenSenior Researcher, The Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town and Noncedo Vutulasenior researcher at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town

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