Africa | The Emerging Continental Famine
The Dark Shadow of Food Insecurity
The global food security crisis has reached the acute stage bordering on the inevitable catastrophe. Although international organizations and government leaderships worldwide have publicly acknowledged the dangers, even uttering the explosively taboo words such as “famine” and “food storage” to include developed countries, the near-term urgency was not communicated.
Admittedly it’s a savvy political and public relations tactic to avoid panic within their respective countries. Furthermore, few countries are prepared to successfully blunt the food shortage reckoning. Food, not the threat of nuclear war, has become the existential threat everywhere.
Africa | The First Domino
The first domino to fall in the emerging global food famine is the African continent where the poorest countries are located. Droughts, floods, climate change and wars on the continent have historically been regional, not continental, enabling international relief organizations to mitigate somewhat, the severity of the crisis. Because of readily available surplus food elsewhere globally, these organizations were able to respond accordingly with emergency shipments.
However 2022 presents a vastly different beast of a crisis. In addition to the “usual suspects” of drought, famine and war on the continent, a faraway war in Ukraine has adversely impacted the export of foodstuffs from that region from where many African countries are almost exclusively dependent. The major reasons why this European war converts a shortfall in foodstuffs into a potential famine in Africa are as follows:
· Russia’s control of the Black Sea prevents Ukrainian agricultural exports.
· Draconian western sanctions against Russia prevent countries from purchasing Russian agricultural goods.
· Russia has prohibited the export of agricultural products indefinitely until in order to insure it has enough foodstuffs for their citizenry.
· For this reason, the Russo-Ukrainian war has eliminated 30% of the world’s agricultural exports.
The following chart entitled Africa’s Major Reliance on Russian and Ukrainian Wheat provided by Trade Map, an organization that provides statistics for international business, outlines the African continent’s dependence on Russo-Ukrainian wheat exports.
The following chart entitled The Most Vulnerable Countries Amid Wheat Shortages provided by the United Nations Conference on trade and Development (UNCTAD) specifies the dependency of the most food import-dependent African countries.
The following chart provides the corresponding population to the above respective African countries most at risk.
Country Population (2020) in millions
DR Congo 89.56
To put this food insecurity risk in perspective, the 340 million African citizens, most of whom are present-day under imminent risk of famine and mass starvation, equate closely to the US population of 330 million.
Even The ‘Cavalry’ is Suffering Shortages
International relief organizations are scrambling to source foodstuffs from other breadbasket nations who themselves are suffering agricultural shortfalls. Decades and even historical droughts in Brazil, China, the Middle East and the US have decimated crop yields. Even those countries with a modest surplus are imposing strict export controls to ensure that they have a sufficient inventory buffer to feed their own citizenry. These policies leave the poorest and most food import-dependent countries, many of which are in Africa, exceptionally vulnerable.
The Potholed Road to Salvation
Whatever surplus foodstuffs that can be shipped to Africa will fall far short of what’s required to maintain any semblance of subsistence living. The pre-pandemic, pre-drought period presented tough logistical challenges which remain unchanged.
The African continent has diverse topographical features which limits inter-African shipments creating a dependency on port-to-port shipments rather by rail or over land. This is one of the many reasons why there is a paucity of inter-African trade.
The following chart entitled The True Size of Africa provided by the CIA, World Population Review and Visual Capitalist, an online publisher shows the sheer geographical size of Africa, so large that even Russia can comfortably fit inside its land mass.
Because the scale of global maps has historically been notoriously inaccurate and distorted, by design or default, it gives a warped perception as to the size of countries and continents.
Firstly, Africa’s diverse topography has made the construction of inter-country inland roads and railways prohibitively expensive which has strangled inter-African trade.
Secondly, existing railways were constructed by colonialists for the transport of extracted minerals to be shipped directly from the mines to the ports, not to serve inter-African trade and commerce.
For this reason the initial overseas delivery of foodstuffs must be made at the ports. Afterward uploading deliveries inland must then be made by truck over poor road infrastructure which are often controlled by de facto warlords and dominant ethnic groups who impose their own “tariffs” on commercial traffic for safe passage.
In the following list I’ve paraphrased and summarized specific logistical challenges typical in most sub-Saharan African countries from the article entitled Trade Flaws: Why It Costs So Much to Move Goods Around Africa in The Economist dated March 26, 2022.
· Poor port infrastructure.
· The ports are small which slows the unloading of cargo. This increases the waiting time of up to two weeks compared elsewhere which is less than a week.
· About 80%-90% of all inland freight is transported over limited roadways.
· Inland transportation is performed by small truck fleets which have 5 or fewer trucks and compose 80% of the ground freight transportation.
· Internal political spats and between countries deliberately create administrative roadblocks for customs clearances. Transport costs are made more expensive by regional business oligopolies, bribery and overall corruption.
On the national level regardless how robust a country’s foreign reserves or ability to obtain generous funding from the IMF and other international lending organizations, if there’s little to no food to purchase then all the gold in the world won’t stop the suffering.
A family’s budgeted cost of food in the developed world is 15% of income, 20% in the emerging world and 40%-50% in under-developed countries - particularly in sub-Sahara Africa. So even if someone with a stash of money or valuable items to barter will still go hungry if there are outright food shortages. For this reason we could be at the cusp of witnessing one of the greatest famines in human history.
Under these hellish conditions autocracies and even fragile, imperfect democracies can rapidly devolve into failed dictatorships or perhaps failed states at the Mad Max level of debauchery. Even the most developed countries could suffer mass civil unrest and maybe civil war.
As with the hurricanes that develop off the coast of Africa and move relentlessly westward and then northward gaining strength before it makes landfall in the Gulf area or East Coast, the same east-to-west food crisis movement is underway today.
From an economic textbook perspective, one would expect that the famine dominos fall in sequence from the poorest to the richest. But because of spikes in inflation, severely compromised supply chain and government interventions such as China’s brutal shutdown of Shanghai’s of 25 million citizens, food shortages could appear in developed countries far sooner than predicted.
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