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Higher food prices and slumping trade. How the war in Ukraine could hit Africa

By Nimi Princewill, CNN

As Russian troops tear through Ukraine, swathes of Africa are gearing up to bear the brunt of a potentially drawn-out conflict between the ex-Soviet republics — two of some of the continent’s most cherished trading partners.

African economists sound the alarm over a looming and likely catastrophic lowering of trade volumes between the continent and its warring partners if Russia’s widely condemned incursion into Ukraine isn’t short-lived.

Russia and Ukraine are key players in the global agricultural trade, with both nations accounting for a quarter of the world’s wheat exports, including at least 14 percent of corn exports in 2020, and a joint 58 percent of global sunflower oil exports in the same year, analysis show.

Trade between African countries and the former Soviet neighbors, especially Russia, has flourished in recent years with Russian exports to the continent valued at $14 billion annually, and imports from Africa pegged at around $5 billion per year.

But these gains are on the verge of eroding quickly, analysts worry, signaling a severe disruption in Africa’s food conditions if Russia’s military operation in Ukraine persists.

‘Three months away from hunger’

Parts of Africa could be plunged into hunger in as fast as three months if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine lingers, says Wandile Sihlobo, the Chief Economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa.

“In the short term, between now and three months, the conflict will affect food supply primarily from a pricing perspective,” Sihlobo told CNN.

“As net importers of products like wheat, which influences bread and cereals, sunflower oil and maize, African countries are fairly exposed on some of these supplies that are coming out of Russia and Ukraine. There will be challenges if the war continues for more than three months — because ordinarily, countries usually keep stock of supplies for three to five months.”

Sihlobo explains that the Ukraine war also comes at a bad time for Africa given the current experience of a severe drought in its eastern subregion, which has taken a hit on food prices.

“Food prices are already high now. If the war stretches, there will be millions of Africans that will be in hunger. We are already expecting millions of people to be in hunger in the areas affected by the drought, so the ongoing conflict will worsen that,” he said.

Africa’s biggest economies such as Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Algeria, and Kenya are major importers of Russia’s agricultural exports, putting them at risk of further spikes in food prices if trade is disrupted.

Sihlobo adds that sanctions targeted at Russia could also complicate Africa’s exports.

“Africa exports fruits and vegetables to Russia and Ukraine. Seven percent of South Arica’s citrus goes to Russia, 14 percent of South Africa’s apples and pears goes to Russia. Egypt and Tunisia also export fruits and vegetables to Russia. The challenge with all of these countries is that with all of the sanctions that are placed on Russia by the US and European countries, it influences the financial services sector… even if the logistics will not be immediately affected, it will disrupt the payment system to all of the exporting countries to Russia,” he told CNN.

Development economist Ndumiso Hadebe agrees that “Africa is likely to see disturbances in the supply chains that pertain to goods and services that are exported and imported between Russia and Africa” as Russia is slammed with a barrage of sanctions by critics of its Ukraine invasion.

Taking sides on the conflict

Hadebe tells CNN that Africa’s largely muted response towards the Russia – Ukraine conflict may cave in for a more direct stance on parties involved in the war if fighting intensifies.

Only a handful of governments on the continent have spoken out in the aftermath of the attacks, with the African Union urging Russia’s respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“There will be significant pressure from a multilateral relations point of view as African countries may be forced to take a position on the conflict that is happening between Russia and Ukraine, and that may either adversely or positively affect the relationship between Africa and Russia going forward,” Hadebe says.

For Russian academic, Irina Filatova, taking sides won’t benefit Africa.

“It won’t be in Africa’s benefit to take sides. I think that Africa can try to remain neutral,” said Filatova, who specializes in Russian and African history.

Beyond agriculture, Russia is expanding its influence in African states troubled with insurgency by providing alternative military solutions from those offered by its Western counterparts, which are often determined by human rights considerations.

Russia has signed up to 20 military cooperation agreements in Africa, including deals with Nigeria and Ethiopia, two of Africa’s most populous countries.

Russian mercenaries have continually come under allegations of human rights infractions in the Central African Republic and other parts of Africa where they were contracted by regional governments to combat local rebels.

However, Russia has denied links to private military contractors such as the Wagner Group, which is accused of the abuses.

Hadebe told CNN that arms trade is “one of the key features that have defined the trade relationship between Russia and Africa.”

“Russia is the largest exporter of weapons to sub-Saharan Africa in particular.”

Africa accounted for 18 percent of Russian arms exports between 2016 and 2020, according to data by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

According to Filatova, Russia’s prospects of doubling down on its interests in Africa may be higher in the aftermath of the Ukraine war.

“Russia will be much more interested in maintaining relations with African countries than it was until now… It has already started to develop these relations but in the situation of the global isolation by the western world, it will definitely try to maintain relations with Africa,” she told CNN.

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