Burkina Faso + 3 more

Understanding West Africa's rising food prices

By Lane Hartill

The food crisis for West Africans could deepen in the coming months as reserve food stocks run out and prices climb, say experts from Catholic Relief Services.

"In the next three to four months, if measures aren't effective to take care of the price rise, people aren't going to take it anymore," says Joseph Sedgo, CRS' regional technical advisor for agriculture. "This is a time bomb waiting to explode."

In Burkina Faso, for example, where earlier this month workers marched through the streets protesting the high cost of living, 15 provinces have already been declared as food insecure. Floods and drought late last year meant crop production was down.

"In rural areas, when the sorghum and millet aren't available in local markets and when the prices increase, people prefer buying rice," says Kassoum Ouattara, who manages emergencies for CRS Burkina Faso. "[Rice] doesn't need processing. They boil the rice and it swells. This fills the stomach."

But now the price of rice has shot up in Burkina Faso. A 110-pound bag of rice cost $28.40 in January 2008. It hit $35.45 in April. Much of the rice in the country is imported from Asian countries that are grappling with their own rice shortage. India, for example, has recently banned the export of non-basmati rice in order to ease rising rice costs.

The spike in food prices reaches across West Africa. From Senegal to Niger, Africans - especially those in urban areas - are feeling the pinch.

In some regions of Niger, families have started eating only one meal a day. In dire circumstances, some families have resorted to eating anza, a wild plant with bitter leaves, to supplement their diet.

In Senegal in early April, a man stormed the floor of Parliament while it was in session, carrying an empty rice bag and shouting that people were hungry.

In northern Ghana, students have been taking CRS-provided lunches home to share with hungry family members. For some children, it's the only meal they will eat during the day. And because of flooding last year, some villages have no millet (a staple food) to sell in local markets.

'A Heavy Burden'

Sedgo says that during the recent agricultural season in West Africa, production was down only 2 percent. But a combination of regional factors - including last year's drought and flooding, increased hoarding by traders, and northern Nigeria's need for cereals to feed poultry farms and supply breweries - has exacerbated rising commodity prices. This has made the price of many goods out of the reach of many poor Africans.

In Burkina Faso, the government recently cracked down on importers who were slipping goods into the country without paying taxes. All importers now must pay taxes; the increased expense is being passed on to the consumer.

Sedgo says that a lower-class civil servant in Burkina Faso, for example, earns about $100 a month. Between 60 and 80 percent of that earned income goes toward food. When a bag of rice costs around $35 and a month's supply of gasoline can cost close to $30, the salary is quickly consumed. Many families require more than one bag of rice per month and expenses such as school fees, rent and medicine add up.

"When you look at the increase [of commodities] on international markets and you add transport costs, something that Sahelian countries can't avoid, it becomes a heavy burden for consumers," says Sedgo.

He says that coastal West African countries will start their first of two harvests in June and July. If successful, these crops could help alleviate food shortages in Sahelian, landlocked countries such as Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali.

The solution to the food crisis, says Sedgo, is for policymakers to put an emphasis on agriculture production. From land reform and agro-enterprise training to improving off-season growing techniques, African farmers need support in order to increase production. This will also reduce dependency on imported food.

"If you can't change the policy environment, this kind of crisis will continue for a long time to come," Sedgo says.

Lane Hartill is Catholic Relief Services' regional information officer in West Africa.