Economics and Bad Weather Amplify Africa’s Food Crisis


May 1, 2017 | 5:21 pm
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A toxic mix of economics, bad weather and conflict is fueling record starvation levels in Africa, as prices of staple foods touch records in half the continent’s 54 countries amid the worst harvests in three decades.

The countries worst affected, including South Sudan, Somalia and northern Nigeria, are plagued by civil war. But even in relatively stable regions, rising inflation and foreign-exchange shortages have exacerbated conditions.

Falling commodity prices across central and southern Africa have sent currencies more than 30% lower against the dollar in the past six months, spiking inflation and undermining purchasing power.

“The corn price doubled again last month,” said Sarah Mweene, a 38-year-old taxi driver from Lusaka, copper-rich Zambia’s capital, where in March eight people died in a stampede of thousands of people who were lined up for emergency food rations. “We can only afford one meal a day for the children.…It’s never happened before.”

In commodity-dependent Zambia, churches converted into food banks are filling beyond capacity as crowds join all-night lines for corn handouts.

On a recent day, thousands of people marched on a sports stadium in Lusaka, where a church was donating free food. Mobs forced the stadium’s steel doors open, snatching cooking oil, corn meal, salt and anything else they could find.

The government is seeking an emergency $1.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan to aid the economy.

Agriculture Minister Dora Siliya said shortages and rising prices are the government’s big challenge, but hopes the situation will stabilize in the coming months, when supplies from the 2017 harvest start to trickle in.

To be sure, commodity prices have moderately recovered since last year, but they remain more than 50% below their 2013 peak, according to the World Bank. While the commodity crash has forced countries like Nigeria and Angola to put more effort into creating sustainable agricultural production, many remain net food importers, exposing citizens to shocks of weakened currencies.

In Uganda, meanwhile, a historic drought and surging food prices have forced thousands from the countryside to beg on the streets of the capital. The nation, usually a surplus food producer, ran out of grain stocks in December, government officials said.

In Kampala’s main grain market, stalls are largely empty, as Uganda’s weakening currency pushes up the price of imported grains, preventing importers from replenishing stocks.

Supermarket owner Stephen Opolot said the economic crunch is the worst since he opened his supermarket seven years ago. He owes a local commercial bank around $6,000 and as sales dwindle, he can no longer raise enough money to pay for a monthly truckload of grain supplies.

“I don’t know whether I will be able to afford rent,” the 40-year-old said, pointing at empty shelves. “We have raised prices to meet costs, but sales keep dropping.”

Sliding currencies and a shortage of increasingly expensive dollars has some countries cutting back on food imports and freezing efforts to replenish stocks. The bulk of food imports into sub-Saharan Africa are dollar-denominated, which pushes up trade deficits and exposes poor economies to food-price inflation.

The worst harvests in three decades have also sent prices around 50% higher than their five-year average across many of the continent’s eastern and southern states, snaring millions of Africans never before affected by hunger, according to Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a U.S.-funded research group.

The United Nations, which has officially declared famine in South Sudan and warned parts of Nigeria and Somalia are edging toward starvation, has said shortages will worsen as the midyear lean season nears.

The U.N. said it needs $4.4 billion by July to address the food crisis, but by early April had raised just $984 million. Worsening crises in Syria, Yemen and Iraq are stretching budgets for aid groups, curtailing relief efforts. President Donald Trump’s proposal to cut $10 billion in foreign aid risks aggravating funding shortfalls, aid officials warn.

“This crisis is adding to the pressure felt by the overstretched and underfunded international humanitarian system,” said Nigel Tricks, Oxfam’s regional director for East Africa. “It’s overwhelming.”


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May 1, 2017 | 5:21 pm
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