Kampala, Uganda – Russia’s decision on Monday to pull out of an agreement which allowed the export of Ukrainian agricultural goods via a safe channel through the Black Sea amid the continuing war is already reverberating far from the front lines of fighting in Ukraine.
For years, East African countries rattled by global climate change have relied on Ukrainian grain exports for sustenance. Now, an end to the agreement could lead to rising consumer prices, and further strain farmers and cash-strapped aid organisations already struggling to respond to challenges like conflict to drought, analysts say.
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“We already know or can predict to a fair degree the impact the pausing of exports from that region to the rest of the world, especially East Africa and the Horn of Africa, will have on food prices,” said Debisi Araba, a food policy strategist and former managing director at the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF).
“We should expect to see an inflationary pressure on the price of grain, especially on countries that are dependent on imports – where these grains are mostly staples feeding millions of people – pushing more people into vulnerability and insecurity,” he added.
Alarm bells and rising prices
The Black Sea Grain Initiative was negotiated by Turkey and the United Nations in July 2022. It allowed ships carrying fertiliser and agricultural products to leave three Ukrainian ports, traversing carefully mapped routes to avoid mines and snaking past Russian warships en route to Turkey’s Bosporus strait.
As a result, some 32.8 million tonnes of Ukrainian corn, wheat and other grains have been exported since the agreement was signed last year.
More than half of this grain went to developing countries, often in the form of World Food Programme donations, which alone received 313 metric tonnes of Ukrainian wheat. Much of that was then donated to drought-affected communities in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, a World Food Programme (WFP) representative told Al Jazeera by telephone from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.
At a signing ceremony in Istanbul last year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres celebrated the Black Sea Grain Initiative as a “beacon of hope”.
Now, humanitarians are raising the alarm of probable food shortages.
“We will have to look at other markets, which increases our lead time, and potentially increases the cost of bringing that food into this market,” said Brenda Kariuki, the WFP spokesperson for East Africa. “More people might be pushed into hunger.”
The Black Sea Grain Initiative has also had a stabilising effect on global markets. Since the deal was done last July, food costs dropped about 23 percent from the peak they reached in March 2022.
This agreement was subsequently stretched out through a series of short-term extensions, the latest in March 2023.
But feeling the sting of Western sanctions, Russia has now decided to pause involvement in the deal unless certain key demands were met, including the easing of restrictions on its own fertiliser products.
Kariuki, of the WFP, was already concerned about potential aid cuts as a result of fluctuation in wheat prices.
“If you think of higher costs of food anywhere in the world, even in the homestead, everyone has to tighten their belts to really make sure they are able to afford the food when the prices go up,” she said. “We will probably be in a position where WFP has to prioritise who gets the food.
“We are looking at significant people in need of food assistance, and yet we are having less and less resources, for food that is getting more and more expensive,” Kariuki added.
The end of the agreement could acutely affect a region already reeling from unpredictable seasons, poor crop yields and livestock deaths, as a result of a fast-warming planet.
Somalia, for example, is currently undergoing the worst drought it has experienced in four decades.
“Ending the Black Sea Grain Initiative is adding challenges for countries already experiencing the effects of a changing climate,” said Ayan Mahamoud, a climate resilience expert with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) trade bloc whose members are Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. “Climate change is known to disrupt agricultural productivity, affecting crop yields and food production.”
Sparse rain brought some relief to Somali farmers earlier this year, but the country is still heavily dependent on food shipped in from other countries.
“Agricultural production in Somalia is already extremely low because of drought and decades of conflict and violence. This leaves Somalia highly reliant on grain imports, with cereal crops making up about a third of the Somali diet in calories,” said Cyril Jaurena, who manages operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross in the country.
“Close to 40 percent of the population are facing acute levels of food insecurity and even small increases in prices can make it even more difficult for families to put food on the table.”
Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia have also imported significant amounts of grain under the Black Sea grain deal, and so stand to suffer during pauses or stoppages in imports.
The United States has urged Russia to resume its participation in the deal, as has UN secretary-general Guterres. Meanwhile, Ukraine will now have to resort to exporting agricultural products via land and railway, at a lower volume and with higher costs.
Championing local farmers
With the grain initiative in the balance, African activists and economists are calling for climate-smart solutions to support local farmers and ramp up production, reducing import dependency.
“We have to try and build self-sufficiency. Most of our constraints are on the supply side,” said Brain Sserunjogi, a fellow at the Economic Policy Research Centre in Uganda. “We have to invest in irrigation measures to make sure that we strengthen our production base for some of the food that we eat. We have to develop our local fertiliser industries.”
While wheat prices in Uganda have yet to drop to their pre-war levels, the effects of Russia pulling out of the grain deal may be less extreme in Uganda than in neighbouring countries, as many people depend on maize and cassava as staple foods, rather than on wheat.
Nonetheless, the current cessation of the agreement has opened the door for conversations on the importance of localisation.
“There is no reason why African countries are net food importers. We have the potential to grow our food, we have the potential to produce our own fertilisers,” said Jane Nalunga, head of the Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Negotiations Institute.
From her office in the bustling Ugandan capital of Kampala and over a plate of matoke, a dish of stewed and mashed green banana, she called on governments to bolster local agriculture production and strengthen regional trade, rather than renegotiate import agreements.
“Food is an issue of sovereignty. For somebody to feed you, you know that you are not a sovereign nation,” Nalunga added.