Putin’s African Victims Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Is Driving Up Grain Prices

Putin’s war in Ukraine may seem far away from Southern Africa, but the consequences are being felt here too. Many countries in the region depend on grain imports from Ukraine and Russia, and prices are exploding.
By Heiner Hoffmann und Asha Jaffar in Nairobi
A market in Nairobi: Food prices in many African countries have exploded in recent weeks, and could continue to climb.

A market in Nairobi: Food prices in many African countries have exploded in recent weeks, and could continue to climb.

Foto: Zakaria Ahmed / DER SPIEGEL
Global Societies

For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

All Articles

Dusk is gathering in Nairobi as Beatrice Atieno packs up her unsold fruit and vegetables after yet another rather average day. The market vendor has to hurry to catch a share taxi through the city and then prepare a meal at home. On the radio, the news presenter is talking about the war in Ukraine, mentioning it late in the newscast. There are, after all, other more pressing issues in Kenya, such as the presidential election in August. Yet Atieno’s dinner is far more closely connected to the faraway war than many realize.

Experts believe that food prices will climb significantly in the coming weeks, particularly in developing countries. One product in particular will be affected: wheat. Much of the wheat imports in Kenya come from Ukraine and Russia. "The wheat prices have already exploded here, and millers have very little access to capital," says Paloma Fernandes of the Cereal Millers Association in Kenya. Higher transportation costs due to rising oil prices are also presenting a challenge, she says.

Market vendor Beatrice Atieno has little savings and already spends most of her money on food. "Sometimes, we go to bed hungry because life has become so expensive," she says. "Bread, especially, is something I can no longer afford to buy. We eat potatoes for breakfast instead."

Even in the weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, food prices in many African countries had already been exploding. The price of wheat flour has risen by 15 percent over last year’s prices, and it is a third higher for cooking oil. But the war in Ukraine promises to make the situation even worse. "Already, 276 million people in 81 countries are facing acute hunger. The world simply cannot afford an additional conflict," says Martin Frick, director of the World Food Program (WFP) in Germany.

War Drives Prices Higher

He says that more than half of the foodstuffs that WFP distributes in crisis regions around the world comes from Ukraine. "Putin’s war isn’t just bringing immeasurable suffering to Ukraine," Frick says. "The effects will be felt far beyond the region."

Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, with over 100 million residents, imports the majority of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, as does Tunisia. In both countries, poor people in particular are heavily dependent on bread. Experts in Tunisia are warning that prices could quickly begin rising as a result of the war. Many other countries in the region face similar problems.

Empfohlener externer Inhalt
An dieser Stelle finden Sie einen externen Inhalt von Twitter, der den Artikel ergänzt und von der Redaktion empfohlen wird. Sie können ihn sich mit einem Klick anzeigen lassen und wieder ausblenden.
Externer Inhalt

Ich bin damit einverstanden, dass mir externe Inhalte angezeigt werden. Damit können personenbezogene Daten an Drittplattformen übermittelt werden. Mehr dazu in unserer Datenschutzerklärung.

Back in Kenya, anger over rising food prices – in a country where many people have a difficult time just making it through each day – is rapidly boiling over. For several days, the hashtag #lowerfoodprices has been trending on Twitter in the country. Hundreds of users have been venting their anger and demanding that the government take action. But there isn’t much the country’s leaders can do. The country is carrying a huge debt load and the International Monetary Fund is demanding that it raise revenues. Which has translated into an increase in taxes on numerous products, including food. The problems have been further magnified by the global supply chain snarls caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And now, Russia’s invasion is making things worse.

"I Don't Have Enough Money"

"The prices will rise even further because of the war, and the poorest will suffer the most from the consequences," says Kenyan agricultural economist Timothy Njagi. Wheat, he points out, is especially important for lower-income Kenyans. Fried breads fill bellies quickly, and bread can replace hot meals in an emergency. But all such products are growing more expensive. Market vendor Beatrice Atieno says she, too, can hardly make ends meet anymore. "I go into stores and then immediately turn around and leave," she says, "because I suddenly don’t have enough money to buy anything."

The rising prices, though, are also affecting the middle class. Cake Plaza, one of the best-known bakeries in Nairobi, would normally be full on a Thursday afternoon, with people ordering cakes for weekend birthday parties or picking up some bread for the next morning. But fewer and fewer customers have been showing up lately, says bakery manager Daniel Kisumba. "People are constantly complaining when they see the prices. Our sales have plunged by more than half. And many bakeries have had to close."

Kisumba is closely following the news from Ukraine, and he knows exactly what is coming. His bakery goes through at least 300 kilograms of wheat flour each day, and he has little choice but to jack up prices again soon, this time by a quarter. The price of a large package of white bread will then cost almost 2 euros. It used to cost less than half that.

The Cereal Millers Association is hoping that new suppliers can be found, such as Argentina, Australia or the United States. But Kenya doesn’t allow the import of gene-modified grains, which limits the options available. Many warehouses and mills have supplies for the next two to three weeks. After that, things will get tight.

The bakery Cake Plaza in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi

The bakery Cake Plaza in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi

Foto: Zakaria Ahmed / DER SPIEGEL

There are other problems as well. Ukraine and Russia are also large exporters of fertilizers, and here, too, prices have exploded in recent months. Smallholder farmers in southern Africa have thus been forced to use less fertilizer than normal in this planting season, which will sharply reduce harvests. And that will again fuel rising food prices – a vicious cycle that will be further driven by Russia’s invasion of faraway Ukraine. Furthermore, Kenyan exports could also suffer from the sanctions imposed on Russia since the country is one of the main purchasers of tea from the eastern African country.

The agricultural economist Timothy Njagi hopes that the exploding costs in Kenya and other African countries could lead to a rethinking: "We have to decide: Do we want to continue to be dependent on exports, or do we want to improve our own agricultural industry?" Many traditional foodstuffs have been forgotten in recent decades and replaced by Western products. Now, in this era of rising prices, they are experiencing a renaissance. Putin’s war is likely to produce hunger and suffering in southern Africa. But it could also perhaps lead to a new approach.

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren