Famine in Africa as More than a Result of War in Ukraine

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world’s eyes have naturally been fixed on the Euro-Asian continent. However, rising grains, fuel, and fertilizer costs as a consequence of the invasion are dangerously worsening food security elsewhere in the world as well. This is leading to a growing hunger crisis in many African countries, among others. Communities in Africa are now facing the worst food crisis in 40 years with hundreds of millions experiencing famine. Although the food crisis itself is a long-term problem on the continent, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has only accelerated and deteriorated the pressing issue.
Both Ukraine and Russia are major worldwide exporters of grains, sunflower oil, and other agricultural products. Together they represent 53 % of the share of global trade in sunflower oil and seeds and 27 % of the share of global trade in wheat. [1] Also, Russia is the world’s leading fertilizer exporter. [2] Africa imported 32 % of its total wheat imports from the Russian Federation and another 12 % from Ukraine throughout 2018 and 2020. Thus, Africa is heavily reliant on food imports from both countries and sharp increases in staple food prices are causing devastating ripples in many African countries, especially the least developed ones. [2] [3]
Global production of wheat in 2018. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most alarming food crises in decades in Sub-Saharan Africa is caused by a number of various factors. The relevant issues are not only the war conflict in Ukraine and high striking inflation levels but also factors such as the recent global Covid-19 pandemic and extreme weather conditions driven by climate change. These recent misfortunes have reversed all earlier progress in reducing the number of undernourished Africans. Moreover, the Horn of Africa is currently suffering from persistent drought, and countries that depend on Russia and Ukraine for wheat and sunflower oil imports have seen prices skyrocket out of the reach of ordinary people. An estimated 140 million people in Africa face acute food insecurity. Perhaps no priority is more pressing in Africa right now, than addressing this alarming issue. [4] [5] [6]

Why Does the Russian Invasion in Ukraine Impact Africa so Significantly?

Although the overall percentage of imports of grains, seeds, and oil to Africa is steep, specific African countries are in many cases far more dependent on such imports from the Russian Federation and Ukraine than the overall percentages demonstrate. [1]

For example, when it comes to the wheat dependency of least developed African countries on Russia and Ukraine together, the numbers vary from over 30 % in Eritrea and South Africa and hit 100 % in Somalia. Overall, the percentages are reaching more than 50 % in Uganda, Tunisia, Gambia, or Burkina Faso and attacking as high as 80 % in Egypt, and Benin. [7]

As for sunflower oil, Russia and Ukraine being the world’s top exporters again cause major problems in Africa. Egypt accounts for 37 % of the global sunflower oil import in 2020, South Africa for 22 %, and Sudan accounts for 15,2 % at the time. Russia also dominates the world export of fertilizers, of which 11,6 % was imported to South Africa, over 9 % to Ethiopia, and more than 7 % to Zambia in 2020. States such as Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique each accounted for approx. 4 % to 6 % of global fertilizer imports during the same time period. [7] [8]

Because the regional production of grains, especially wheat, is comparatively small, and many parts of the continent lack efficient transport infrastructure and storage capacity, there is limited space for replacing imports from the Russian Federation and Ukraine through intra-African trade. Not to mention that the prices of urea and phosphate, two major components of fertilizer, had already risen by 30 % and 4 %, respectively, by the end of 2021 and a further increase in input costs is a significant risk factor for the African continent. [1]

Reasons Behind the Shortage and Steep Prices

Before the war broke out in February 2022, food shipments from Ukraine mostly happened through ports in Odesa and Mariupol in the Black and Azov seas. However, Russia strategically hit and captured this economically vital point right at the beginning of the conflict. This resulted in leaving the shipment of nearly 25 million tons of grain obstructed to rot. [9]

After Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar signed the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July 2022, ten million tons of grains and food have left Ukraine’s Black Sea ports in the past three months. According to Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, this agreement was supposed to be a relief for developing countries on the edge of bankruptcy and the most vulnerable people on the edge of famine. [10]

The agreement was scheduled to expire on November 19, 2022. Russia previously declared suspension of its participation on October 29, in response to an alleged Ukrainian drone attack on its Black Sea fleet in Crimea but resumed its participation on November 2. A week before the expiration date, Russian continuance in the agreement was still not clear. Kremlin threatened to withdraw from the grain agreement several times before, expressing dissatisfaction with its disability to export enough Russian food and fertilizers due to Western sanctions. Finally, the deal has been extended on November 17, for four more months. However, Russia claimed that its own demands were yet to be fully addressed and the future development of the agreement is uncertain. [11] [12] [13] [14] [15]

Black Sea Initiative was renewed on November 17, 2022. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Undoubtedly, it is necessary to mention one additional factor – transportation. Poor infrastructure and cross-border restrictions on the food trade within the region are long-lasting problems in Africa. With nowadays transportation costs, the problem is going from bad to even worse. With Russia being the second-largest oil exporter in the world, fuels and global energy prices are skyrocketing and supplies are squeezed. The situation is mounting trade costs, resulting in already high food prices now rising extremely. [1]

In general, the conflict has disrupted the export of wheat, corn, barley, and sunflower oil from both countries, and a large percentage of the world’s supply of fertilizers as well. As a result, food and fertilizer prices have skyrocketed worldwide, yet the most vulnerable are naturally the poorest regions in Africa and the Middle East. [16]

Regions Most at Risk

With a high dependency on grains from Ukraine and Russia, African countries are on shaky ground. Generally, the conflict has dangerously deepened the food crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa, where tens of millions of people have already been plunged into extreme poverty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, armed conflicts and climate change. [17] [18]

Mother with malnourished child in Somali hospital in Mogadishu, 2011. Source: Flickr.

The Sahel region and West Africa have gone from 10,7 million people threatened by food insecurity in 2019 to 40,7 million in 2022. Particularly affected have been areas such as Lake Chad (Chad, Nigeria, and Cameroon) and the Tri-border area at the crossroads of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. [19]

Nigeria has been ranked 103. out of 121 countries in the 2022 Global Hunger Index. Especially alarming is the fact that it is the fourth largest importer of wheat in the world, with the import coming primarily from Russia. With the current heavy flooding, the production capacity is likely to drop even more, thereby leading to an increase in the product import to close the deficit. Even before the war, in 2020, 71 % of the population was not financially able to meet their basic needs regarding alimentation. [20] [21]

Moving to the east of the African continent, the Horn of Africa region is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years, and on occasions when rain has come, it has reached extremes and caused flash floods. Leaders are struggling to deal with these extreme weather patterns and dangerously rising inflation. In addition to that, there is the factor of limited exports and raised costs for commodities such as wheat, gas, oil, and much-needed fertilizers for local farmers [22]

In Ethiopia, affected by frequent droughts and 2 years of war conflict in the Tigray region, April’s food item inflation reached an unprecedented 43 %, and the price of fertilizer has shot up 200 percent. The UN warns that hunger is threatening the lives of more than 20 million citizens. [22] [23]

Moving further in the region, wheat is a key food item for Sudan, yet only about 15 % of the crop consumed in the country is actually grown there. The rest is again imported mostly from Russia and Ukraine. Most affected are urban poor households, whose consumption of wheat dropped by 16-19 % between July 2021 and February 2022 and then by another 5 percent in March 2022. [24]

African Positions Regarding the Invasion

When the UN General Assembly held a vote on March 2, 2022, on a resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 17 African countries did not submit a vote, seven were not present or had their vote right suspended, and Eritrea, together with Belarus, Russia, North Korea, and Syria voted against the resolution. Worldwide, 35 countries abstained, of which the 17 African states make up almost half. [25]

Map showing countries and their voting in the UN General Assembly. Green: In favour, Red: Against, Yellow: Abstained and Blue: Absent. Source: Wikipedia.

Similarly, in October 2022, when the UN voted about the response to Russia’s announced annexation of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, 26 African countries voted in favour of the resolution rejecting Moscow’s controversial referendum, nineteen others abstained – including Ethiopia, the Republic of Congo, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Eritrea which had previously voted to reject the UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. [26] [27]

When analysing these votes, it is necessary to bear in mind the fragile state of many African countries. For years they have been consumed in wars, threatened by extremists and militant groups, poverty, and climate change. According to African leaders, the main reason behind the abstained votes is an effort for neutrality. While this may be difficult to understand from the position of western democracies, states suffering from internal security problems and existential threats just try to keep their options open. The dependency of African countries on imports from the Russian Federation and Ukraine may play a key role, although it is not the only factor. [28] [29]

Search for a New Diplomatic Approach

From a different perspective, there is the reputation of Russia’s private military contractors’ perceived ability to contain violent extremism. Currently, the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, is operating in Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Central African Republic, and Mali. Moreover, unlike many European countries, Russia is not a former colonial power in Africa. Over the last few years, Russia has also become one of Africa’s most valuable trading partners in terms of military equipment – supplying military equipment mostly to Nigeria, Libya, Ethiopia, and Mali. Apart from that and wheat export in certain states, Russia really does not have so much commercial influence on the continent compared to other world powers. West, on the other hand, is crucial for Africa regarding the support of democratic rule, civil society, and overall economic prosperity and development. [29] [30]

Given the difficult position of the African states, their hesitation or reluctance to take a particular side is understandable. However, there is a significant distinction between “neutrality” and “impartiality”. While being neutral basically means to stand apart and do nothing, being impartial results in not having favourites and treating all sides equally. [31] [32] Considering all of the above, the most advantageous for Africa is staying impartial, therefore treating each side fairly and “keeping their communication channels and bilateral trade open with both sides.”  [32]

Nevertheless, when Ukrainian President Zelensky held a virtual address to African Union on June 20, 2022, “only 4 out of 55 African heads of states showed up – Macky Sall, President of Senegal and current African Union Chairperson, Alassane Ouattara, President of Côte d’Ivoire, Mohammed al-Menfi, President of the Libyan Council and Denis Sassou Nguesso, President of the Republic of Congo.” [32] In his address, Zelensky called Africa a hostage of Russia’s war and highlighted the importance of the partnership between the African continent and Ukraine. [33]

All taken into consideration, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the issue of globalization and world trade to our attention. While an ongoing armed conflict in any country is deplorable, its consequences in today’s strongly connected world are much wider. Many African countries face poverty, hunger, and environmental and political problems regularly, but the consequences of the war in Ukraine have gradually compounded all these issues. What’s worse, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to be coming to Africa’s aid. Perhaps the world has forgotten that economic and social insecurity is a fundamental trigger of much larger conflicts.

Article reviewed by: Veronika Čáslavová


[1] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). (2022). The Impact on Trade and Development of the War In Ukraine. Retrieved from  https://unctad.org/webflyer/impact-trade-and-development-war-ukraine

[2] McGuirk, E., & Burke, M. (2022). War in Ukraine, world food prices, and conflict in Africa [Online]. In L. Garicano, D. Rohner, & B. Weder di Mauro, Global Economic Consequences of the War in Ukraine: Sanctions, Supply Chains and Sustainability (pp. 133-137). Centre for Economic Policy Research. Retrieved from https://cepr.org/system/files/2022-09/172987-global_economic_consequences_of_the_war_in_ukraine_sanctions_supply_chains_and_sustainability.pdf#page=143).%20https://www.redcross.org.uk/stories/disasters-and-emergencies/world/africa-hunger-crisis-100-million-struggling-to-eat

[3] British Red Cross. (2022, October 7). Africa food crisis: 146 million people are going hungry. Retrieved from https://www.redcross.org.uk/stories/disasters-and-emergencies/world/africa-hunger-crisis-100-million-struggling-to-eat

[4] The International Federation of Red Cros and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). (2022). Africa: Hunger Crisis. Retrieved from https://www.ifrc.org/emergency/africa-hunger-crisis

[5] The World Bank. (2022). Putting Africans at the Heart of Food Security and Climate Resilience. Retrieved from https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/immersive-story/2022/10/17/putting-africans-at-the-heart-of-food-security-and-climate-resilience

[6] Allen, J. (2022, October 14). Africa: Global Crises Plunge Millions Into Acute Food Insecurity. allAfrica. Retrieved from https://allafrica.com/stories/202210140398.html

[7] The Observatory of Economic Complexity. (n.d). OEC. Retrieved from https://oec.world/en/profile/hs/sunflower-seed-or-safflower-oil-crude

[8] The Observatory of Economic Complexity. (n.d). OEC. Retrieved from https://oec.world/en/profile/hs/fertilizers

[9] Sadana, A. (2022, July 2). Food crisis starts to bite Africa amid Russia-Ukraine war. The Indian Express.Retrieved from https://indianexpress.com/article/world/food-crisis-africa-russia-ukraine-war-8004799/

[10] Boffey, D., Michaelson R., Koshiw, I., & Roth, A. (2022, July 22). Ukraine and Russia sign UN-backed deal to restart grain exports. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jul/22/ukraine-russia-sign-un-backed-deal-restart-grain-exports

[11] Polityuk, P., & Nichols, M. (2022, October 30). U.N., Turkey, Ukraine press ahead with Black Sea grain deal despite Russian pullout. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-suspends-participation-deal-ukraine-grain-exports-tass-2022-10-29/

[12] Associated Press News. (2022, November 11). UN reports progress on Russia’s grain and fertilizer exports. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/article/europe-business-geneva-global-trade-d3a4f35e3b8b0306643fc13bdce10e99


[13] United Nations. (2022, November 1). Black Sea grain deal shipments on hold Wednesday, following Russia suspension. Retrieved from https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/11/1130092

[14] TASR. (2022, October 30). EÚ žiada Rusko, aby sa vrátilo k dohode o vývoze obilia z Ukrajiny. Trend. Retrieved from https://www.trend.sk/spravy/eu-ziada-rusko-aby-vratilo-dohode-vyvoze-obilia-ukrajiny

[15] Nichols, M. (2022, November 18). Black Sea grain export deal extended, but Russia wants more on fertiliser exports. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/world/un-secretary-general-says-black-sea-grain-deal-extended-2022-11-17/

[16] Behnassi, M. & El Haiba, M. (2022, May 30). Implications of the Russia–Ukraine war for global food security. Nature Human Behaviour. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-022-01391-x

[17] Banya, M. (2022, May 10). Ukraine war fuels food crisis in distant Africa. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/ukraine-war-fuels-food-crisis-distant-africa-2022-05-10/

[18] Human Rights Watch. (2022, April 28). Ukraine/Russia: As War Continues, Africa Food Crisis Looms. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/04/28/ukraine/russia-war-continues-africa-food-crisis-looms

[19] Agence Française de Développement. (2022, August 3). Ukrainian war worsens african food crisis. Retrieved from https://www.afd.fr/en/actualites/ukrainian-war-worsens-african-food-crisis

[20] Adebowale-Tambe, N. (2022, October 16). Nigeria’s hunger level ‘serious,’ ranks 103 out of 121 countries. Premium Times. Retrieved from https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/559880-nigerias-hunger-level-serious-ranks-103-out-of-121-countries.html

[21] The Observatory of Economic Complexity. (n.d). OEC. Retrieved from https://oec.world/en/profile/hs/wheat

[22] Gbadamosi, N. (2022, May 11). War in Ukraine Is Worsening East Africa’s Food Crisis. Foreign Policy Magazine.Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/05/11/ukraine-russia-war-agriculture-food-hunger-crisis-east-africa/

[23] United Nations. (2022, June 23). Conflict, drought, dwindling food support, threatens lives of 20 million in Ethiopia. Retrieved from https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/06/1121132

[24] Breisinger, C., Kirui, O., Dorosh, P., Glauber, J., & Laborde D. (2022, April 14). The Russia-Ukraine conflict is likely to compound Sudan’s existing food security problems. Food Security Portal. Retrieved from https://ssa.foodsecurityportal.org/node/1962

[25] White, A. & Holtz, L. (2022, March 9). Figure of the week: African countries’ votes on the UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Brookings Institution. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2022/03/09/figure-of-the-week-african-countries-votes-on-the-un-resolution-condemning-russias-invasion-of-ukraine/

[26] Africanews & AFP. (2022, October 13). African countries divided over UN vote against Russia. Africa News.Retrieved from https://www.africanews.com/2022/10/13/african-countries-divided-over-un-vote-against-russia/

[27] Lederer, E. M., (2022, October 13). UN demands Russia reverse ‘illegal’ annexations in Ukraine. Associated Press News. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-middle-east-syria-united-nations-fd7ede16dec560ebb49f9465644de1b1

[28] Mills, C. (2022, March 4). Why did 17 African countries abstain from the UN vote on Ukraine?. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-60625082

[29] Ajao, O. (2022 March 3). 4 reasons 17 African countries abstained from UN vote to condemn Russia invasion of Ukraine. Pulse Nigeria. Retrieved from https://www.pulse.ng/news/world/4-reasons-17-african-countries-abstained-from-un-vote-to-condemn-russia-invasion-of/dfbt318

[30] Busari, S. (2022 March 23). Analysis: Why some African countries are thinking twice about calling out Putin. CNN. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2022/03/21/africa/africa-leaders-ukraine-response-cmd-intl/index.html

[31] Harroff-Tavel, M. (1989, December). Neutrality and Impartiality. The importance of these principles for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and the difficulties involved in applying them. International Review of the Red Cross. IRRC No. 273 Retrieved from https://international-review.icrc.org/articles/neutrality-and-impartiality-importance-these-principles-international-red-cross-and-red

[32] Čáslavová, V. (2022, July 15). Decoding Volodymyr Zelensky’s African Union Address. HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies. Retrieved from https://horninstitute.org/decoding-volodymyr-zelenskys-african-union-address/

[33] BBC. (2022, June 20). Africa is a hostage of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Zelensky says. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-61864049



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