The era of cheap food is over. That’s the opinion of many development economists as the world grapples with the rising cost of food. Hardest hit are net importers of food, many of them African countries. From Washington, reporter William Eagle looks at the increase in prices for foods and what it means to the continent.
The World Bank says global food prices have nearly doubled over the past three years. In the lead are three grains that are among Africa’s largest imports: rice, wheat and maize.
The Bank says in the last year, international wheat prices alone have risen 123%.
Personal accounts of the food price increases put a human face on the statistics.
Peter Oriare is the director of the firm Strategic Public Relations and Research in Nairobi:
"Last year," he says, "I used to spend 300 shillings [nearly $5] per day…that’s [for] basic [food needs]. Today, I spend 600 shillings daily just to be able to take some breakfast, make sure those that remain in the house have some lunch, and that in the evening, we have something to eat . I [earn more than the ordinary] Kenyan and still I feel the pinch. So you can imagine what people who live below the poverty line are going through."
Consumers are making their displeasure known to their leaders: in recent months, protests have broken out in Egypt, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Conakry, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon and Senegal.
Analysts say a convergence of factors is behind the rise – including increased demand for grains and meat, especially among the middle classes of India and China. Around the world, grains are used not just for making bread, but also for feeding livestock.
Weather is another factor. Droughts in Australia and in West and East Africa have driven up costs. So has the diversion of maize in the United States and Europe, where some governments require that a portion of the crops be used to produce ethanol and other biofuels.
Marc Cohen is a research fellow at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.
"Certainly the price of corn, or maize, is also rising quite rapidly globally," he says, "because of the increased use of corn for fuel, especially in the US and increasing demand for livestock to feed to live stock in rapidly growing economies in East Asia. This has also led to farmers shifting away from wheat in the US to more corn because of rapidly rising prices. Corn is widely consumed in Africa as well, and is widely produced in Eastern and Southern Africa. "
Some large grain producers -- including Vietnam, India, and Egypt -- have banned rice exports. That adds to consumer pressure in countries like Liberia, which imports 90 percent of its rice.
A 50kg bag will feed a family of seven for two weeks. It currently costs US$34 -- the average monthly salary for a security guard in Monrovia. In neighboring Sierra Leone, the price of sugar, flour, oil and rice increased by 40 percent.
Peter Oriare notes that in Kenya, political violence over last year’s contested presidential election has hampered food production in a country that is not only a food exporter but also a transportation hub for East Africa.
"The post-election conflict," he says, "was in areas that can be called food baskets of Kenya, like the Rift Valley, western Kenya and parts of Central Province, where we produce basic foods like maize, beans and peas. So the [international observers] have said Kenyans will go through a difficult period…because of lack of basic commodities because during the conflict people did not till the land or plant, so large tracts of land have not been planted. You would expect a food insecurity situation …..prices have to go up."
Humanitarian agencies fear higher prices will mean malnutrition for children in countries recovering from civil war, like Liberia. They also fear that rural parents will keep their children out of school so they can help in the fields.
For African governments, the challenge is to enact short-term measures to alleviate the suffering of the urban working poor, who do not earn enough money to pay for food. Development specialists say over the long term, countries will have to place more investment in agriculture, which they say has been neglected over the past few decades. They say with improved roads to markets and inputs like fertilizer and improved seed varieties, there’ s a chance farmers can use the higher prices to satisfy demand – and move Africa closer to food self-sufficiency.