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A nation must think before it acts.
A Generational Challenge
Food security across sub-Saharan Africa stands among this generation’s greatest challenges, a crisis that continues to worsen amidst this economic downturn and will ultimately underpin further humanitarian struggles without dedicated and full-scale intervention.
Estimates suggest that between 275 million to 350 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are presently suffering from food insecurity, with approximately 60 percent of the continent’s population experiencing moderate or severe food security, according to the most recent World Bank data. Amid rising costs close to home, it is easy to miss that for much of the developing world, inflation is more than higher prices—but instead represents conflict, famine, and starvation.
Global economic conditions are exacerbating the acute food supply challenge for a multitude of communities throughout Africa. Current conflict and climate trends during the past year, combined with rising inflation, create a worst-case scenario capable of producing a generational food crisis across the continent.
Specifically, increasing costs to food production supply chain components like fertilizers, logistics, and energy resulting from a prolonged COVID recovery, regulatory changes in the most development economies, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have caused significant price surges and processing and production shortages. Developed economies worldwide are experiencing the greatest labor shortages in more than a decade due to the prolonged-COVID fallout. The lines of effort for food production in the world’s largest economies are significantly strained given the three key factors for agriculture supply—energy, fertilizers, and labor—are undergoing extreme market pressure and price volatility. Global food prices have reached their highest mark in forty years.
The pressure on the world’s most food-vulnerable states is startling. Many of the most threatened are represented in Africa, and multiple organizations tracking food insecurity identify the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia—among other sub-Saharan Africa states—as the most at-risk situations.
Food Insecurity in Africa Is Getting Worse
The recent United Nations’ State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report highlights the need for a deliberate food supply strategy that also addresses inflation. More than 800 million people are threatened with food insecurity globally, including nearly 300 million who are unable to meet basic caloric sustenance and are at the greatest risk of starvation. Catastrophic food scarcity continued to rise during the past two years, and the report demonstrates that moderate and severe insecurity experienced the greatest increases in Africa, with sub-Saharan Africa continuing to own the highest rates of both stages of severity.
Africa’s food supply-demand ratio (or, the availability of food versus demand for it) is already unsustainable, and those countries with the most crucial needs are dependent to a high degree on commercial and humanitarian ties to economies in North America, Europe, and Asia. But this reliance is stretched amidst the greater economic shock experienced worldwide.
The International Monetary Fund finds global overall economic growth rate projections for 2022 declining by nearly 50 percent, with the greatest shifts experienced in advanced economies. In fact, the Fund sees advanced economies performing equally poorly for 2023 during its most recent outlook. Though developing economies have declined to a lesser degree and are forecasted to recover in 2023, the realities of global energy and food supplies, foreign direct investment, and humanitarian needs will affect African communities.
Inflation in advanced economies will ultimately make Africa’s food security crisis even more acute. Over the past year in the United States, there has been a 41 percent increase in energy prices and 30 percent increase in fertilizer. These price jumps make agriculture production and logistics more challenging. So, for a country like the United States to experience this inflation, the downstream effect finds African states facing a tightened and more expensive food market.
The world’s other large economies join the United States in struggling to balance energy, materials, and other supply chain costs and labor shortages. Similar conditions were last experienced from 2011 to 2014, which then created the highest three-year food price average since 1979 (until today).
The constrained food supply from developed state partners is even more dangerous when aggravated by droughts and flooding or conflict and violence, which can set back greater security, economic growth, and quality of living objectives.
Comprehensive quality of living assessment tools like the United Nation’s Human Development Index and the Multidimensional Poverty Indexes provide evidence-based correlation between food insecurity and broader state instability. Food insecurity underpins the social, economic, and political pressures that erode a country’s ability to achieve sustainable development and quality of life increases. As food insecurity accelerates, so does the burden on human well-being. Conversely, challenges to prosperity and quality of living have a universal effect on food access and susceptibility to widespread malnutrition, starvation, and famine.
The Human Development Index and Multidimensional Poverty Indexes find more than half the entire African continent ranked within the bottom third for food security and human development overall, with thirty African countries assessed as “low” development for 2022. Unsurprisingly then, the World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization recognize many of the most severe shortages are occurring in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa.
Hunger and Conflict
Among the countries experiencing food shortage emergencies, conflict and violence heighten the threat to emergency humanitarian food assistance efforts, let alone the local agribusiness, logistics, and sustainable commercial relationships necessary for durable food security solutions. For example, Nigeria’s northern states face catastrophic food scarcity—worsened by ongoing violence in the region by terrorist groups, as well as the Farmers-Herders Conflict, a cultural and religious violent competition for land rights between Muslim herders and Christian farmers in the north-central and northwest regions.
Ethiopia’s conflict in the Tigray region has doubled the estimated population suffering from famine in the past year, adding to a previously doubled estimate from the year prior. As the conflict expands into neighboring regions, food insecurity is expected to increase. The Democratic Republic of the Congo likewise continues to suffer from conflict throughout its eastern region, and regional violence deteriorates stability in the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
Climate impacts are felt throughout the continent, as well, and are especially detrimental to the rural areas without the infrastructure and technology to mitigate the effects of drought, flooding, and other weather events. Sahel countries Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger are experiencing their worst levels of food insecurity in nearly a decade due to drought. Below-average rainfall continues to impact East African states in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Madagascar is also presently managing consecutive poor rainfalls and drought, particularly in its southern region where the effects are most severe. Conversely, abnormal flooding is contributing to the food crisis in South Sudan.
Other geopolitical and economic forces are influencing the global food supply. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the disruption of Ukrainian grains reaching African markets is a clear example. Grain prices dramatically spiked this spring, trading at $463 per bushel at the beginning of February, to more than $1,200 per bushel by March. Russia (first) and Ukraine (fifth) represented two of the top five grain exporters in 2021 and together account for more than 20 percent of total grain exports. Furthermore, Russia is the world’s top fertilizer exporter and its hurting other developed countries’ ability to produce.
What Can Be Done
Addressing food prices represents the most immediate and controllable action step for individual governments can take to prevent the food insecurity crisis in Africa from getting worse. The response should extend beyond traditional humanitarian relief resources to include measures to curb inflation for food production and its supply chain. Multilateral institutions, like the World Bank and African Development Bank, are also positioned to assist by adjusting and expanding financing tools for Africa-based agriculture development and exports, including providing capital access and partnerships for small farmers
For state leaders, multilateral partners, and the entire Africanist community, understanding food insecurity on the continent represents an urgent and unavoidable charge—even more imperative as inflation continues to force prices higher, access lower, and entire states to greater vulnerability. Adjusting those economic conditions which have accelerated this food crisis is unequivocally required, making for a critical starting point toward enduring food security on the continent.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. In addition, the views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the US Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.