The Hidden Effects of the War in Ukraine: Famine and Increased Prices

The conflict has driven up food prices in a region heavily dependent on Russia and Ukraine, affecting millions in and out of the region.


Viktor Talashuk / Unsplash

Around the world, people who rely on imports from Russia and Ukraine have been hit hard by the ongoing war.

According to the United Nations (U.N.), below average rainfall across East Africa has created some of the driest conditions in four decades leaving more than 13 million people severely food insecure. Seasonal harvests have hit their lowest in decades, malnourished children are filling hospitals, and many families are walking long distances to find help.

The devastating drought has enveloped most of Somalia, leaving nearly a third of the population hungry. In neighboring Kenya, the drought has left more than three million people short of food and killed more than 1.5 million livestock. 

In Ethiopia, where a civil war has impeded aid delivery into the northern Tigray region, food insecurity is more widespread and at their highest levels since 2016. The first food aid to Tigray in three months arrived on April 1, 2022. 

Currently, the war in Ukraine is making the crisis even worse by raising the price of grains, fuel, and fertilizer. Some of the region’s top suppliers of agricultural commodities such as barley, soybeans, and wheat are Russia and Ukraine. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, at least 14 African countries import half of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine, with Eritrea depending on both of them entirely for its wheat imports.

The devastating drought and the war in Ukraine are amplified by a series of crises over the past two years.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted food supply chains and forced many families to pay higher prices for food staples. The locust infestation in Kenya, the civil war in Ethiopia, extreme flooding in South Sudan, the political crises and growing terrorist attacks in Somalia, and the intensifying ethnic conflict in Sudan have all contributed to the destruction of farms, the depletion of harvests, and a worsening food crisis. 

The war in Ukraine, which is in its third month, is expected to cause further spikes in food costs across the region. That unfavorable outcome is already evident in many parts of the world.

In Somalia, the price of a 20-liter container of cooking oil has increased from $32 to $55, while 25 kilograms of beans now go for $28 instead of $18, according to data gathered by Mercy Corps

“A week ago, the 20-liter jerrycan of cooking oil was $25, today it’s about $50 [£38]. A liter of gasoline was $0.64 and today it runs about $1.80 – it’s crazy,” Mohamed Osman, a Somalian trader, told Agence France-Presse this week.

In Sudan, the price of bread has nearly doubled, and some bakeries have closed because wheat imports have dropped by 60 percent since the beginning of the war, according to Elsadig Elnour, the Sudan Country Director for the charity Islamic Relief.

Citing the war in Ukraine, Kenya has also raised the price of fuel, leading to protests in parts of the country. In early May, activists held a demonstration in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, asking the government to lower costs of living.  

When famine hits, children are particularly vulnerable. According to World Vision, a Christian aid organization, an estimated 5.5 million children in the region are facing high levels of malnutrition from the drought. 

Aid programs that are supposed to help and relieve some of the stress are stretched thin. The war has affected the operations of the World Food Program, the world’s largest humanitarian organization, which this month said it had reduced rations to vulnerable populations across East Africa and the Middle East because of rising costs and depleting funds.

Some fear that the continued drought in East Africa could come to resemble the one in 2011, which killed about 260,000 people in Somalia alone. 

In addition, an even larger portion of the world’s fertilizers are stuck in Russia and Belarus leading to a fertilizer shortage. 

In 2021, Russia was the world’s largest fertilizer exporter, providing around 15 percent  of the world supply, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

These sanctions have also hit Russia’s closest ally, Belarus, which is another leading producer of potash-based fertilizer critical for major crops such as soybeans and corn. 

Another signal of the crippling problem is European fertilizer producers slowing or halting production because of increasing prices of natural gas used in the fertilizer manufacturing process. 

Higher fertilizer prices are already leaving a rippling global effect by making the world’s food supply more expensive and less abundant, as farmers skimp on nutrients for crops and in turn get lower yields. While grocery shoppers in wealthy countries will feel the effect, those hardest hit will be families in poorer countries. 

The FAO Food Price Index used to measure the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities reached an all time high in March since it started in 1990. 

Some countries are hoping to fill the gaps. Nigeria opened Africa’s largest fertilizer factory, Dangote fertilizer plant, last month and has already shipped fertilizer to several major countries. 

India, however, is hoping to substitute fertilizer that it would typically get from Russia and Belarus from other countries to make up for the lost shipments. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also announced a $250 million investment in grants to support U.S. fertilizer production. Around the world, the outcome  will be even higher grocery prices. For those already living on the brink of food insecurity, the latest surge in prices could drive many over the edge. 

In a note, Wells Fargo Head of Global Real Assets John LaForge and Global Strategist Gary Schlossberg said, “Overall, the current commodity wars, we believe, will lead to higher and more persistent inflation around the world, including in the U.S.” 

Rising food prices have long been a catalyst for social and political upheavals in African and Arab countries, leaving many to subsidize staples like bread in an effort to avoid these problems. But their economies, already under immense strain, are now buckling under the cost of food.

“A week ago, the 20-liter jerrycan of cooking oil was $25, today it’s about $50 [£38]. A liter of gasoline was $0.64 and today it runs about $1.80 – it’s crazy,” Mohamed Osman, a Somalian trader, told Agence France-Presse this week.