By Chege Ngigi,
Africa Regional Director,
Whereas the African Union declared 2022 the Year of Food Security and Nutrition, food security in Africa is under threat. Several factors have left millions facing the threat of starvation. From droughts to rising fuel and energy prices coupled with record-high prices of basic food commodities, malnutrition and hunger is shaping up to be the new reality for way too many children and their families. Just when millions of households were recovering from the debilitating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, things seem to be getting worse.
According to reports, it is estimated that 38.3 million people are facing acute food insecurity between June and August across Africa. This number is expected to rise to an unprecedented level if humanitarian interventions are not scaled up. The number of people affected in West and Central Africa is expected to reach a record high in June – quadrupling in just three years from 10.7 million in 2019 to 41 million in 2022, while IGAD reports that an estimated 29 million people in Eastern Africa are currently facing high levels of food insecurity due to prolonged drought as rains are projected to fail for a fourth consecutive season.
Persistent droughts have also led to a high rate of livestock deaths and lost crops. Many water sources have also dried up, increasing trekking distances to access water. Unfortunately, this means more children are dropping out of school to join their parents in search of water for their families and livestock. The number of hungry and unprotected children is on the rise, particularly among those living in vulnerable contexts, who are unable to meet basic needs.
Statistics from The Gambia Bureau of Statistics indicate that the cost of food in the country increased 15.5 percent in April 2022 over the same month in the previous year, as authorities blamed the pain of skyrocketing fuel and food prices on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic-induced shortages.
Households are grappling with record-high prices of essential commodities such as sugar, oil and flour. The average market price for a bag of rice is now at least D1,400, while a 20-litre gallon of oil costs over D2,000. This situation is replicated in several countries in West Africa as the prices of coarse grains continued to increase and were at near-record levels.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected exports from the two countries, which account for 26% of wheat exports globally and 80% of the world’s exports of sunflower oil, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Fourteen African countries depend on Russia and Ukraine for more than half of their wheat imports. FAO warns that the conflict could lead to as many as 13.1 million people going hungry between 2022 and 2026, globally.
From our work with affected communities in different countries in Africa, we know that during such a crisis, the biggest victims are children, girls, and women. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are at greater risk of malnutrition and stress. Traditionally, when food is scarce, women eat last, least, or not at all, while children lack access to adequate, let alone, nutritious foods.
To mitigate this situation, concerted efforts by all stakeholders are required urgently. Governments, development partners, corporates, donors, communities, and the media must work together to find sustainable solutions. Investment in sustainable food systems that are environmentally sustainable and resilient and inclusive of poor and marginalized populations, remains a priority.
Interventions to cushion food-insecure households are necessary to navigate this difficult period. For example, there is a need to implement school feeding programs in the worst-hit areas to provide children with food and allow them to continue their education. In some cases, this is the only meal a child will have in a day. For pregnant and lactating women, interventions to ensure they receive adequate nutritious foods and healthcare services should be scaled up. Domestic price controls, social protection programs, food subsidies and export restrictions will also help to alleviate the crisis.
Vulnerable households, be they in urban or rural areas, must be supported to ensure their right to adequate food is protected. These households are typically the most affected by high food prices – as their purchasing power is eroded affecting other facets of their lives and harming their overall wellbeing.
In the medium and long-term, food sustainability and self-sufficiency must be Africa’s goal. The continent remains an overly dependent importer of food despite hosting 60% of the world’s arable land.
All stakeholders must pool their resources to support investments in developing agriculture, livestock and fisheries, which will guarantee enhanced and sustainable food production. There must also be a pathway created for African countries with food surpluses to supply those with deficits in times such as these.