East Africa’s Growing Food Crisis: What to Know

In Brief

East Africa’s Growing Food Crisis: What to Know

Conflicts in Ethiopia and Ukraine are exacerbating food scarcity in a region where millions of people already suffer from severe hunger.

How dire is food scarcity in East Africa?

The Horn of Africa is in the midst of a desperate food security crisis. Last month, the World Food Program indicated that some thirteen million people across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, face severe hunger. The worst could be yet to come: the Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that over the course of 2022, fifteen to twenty million people in those three countries could face serious food insecurity. At the same time, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that more than five million children—whose physical and cognitive development can be permanently damaged by inadequate nutrition—in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia are acutely at risk. The outlook for the region has only grown worse in recent weeks, as global shocks associated with the Ukraine crisis worsen food security projections.

An infographic explaining levels of hunger and food insecurity.

What factors are driving the hunger crisis?

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There are multiple factors contributing in a cascading manner that has exhausted many communities’ coping mechanisms and contingency plans. Climate change is contributing to more extreme weather, and three years of drought in the worst-affected countries have led to multiple failed harvests and loss of pastureland for livestock. These effects, in turn, have worsened economic hardship, as agricultural laborers have been out of work and unable to earn money to buy food. In 2020 and 2021, conditions deteriorated further due to widespread locust swarms that decimated cropland. The global economic and supply-chain disruptions resulting from COVID-19 also pushed more communities to the margins by driving up prices, eating away at savings, and limiting economic opportunities.

How are conflicts in and outside the region making it worse?

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The Tigray crisis in Ethiopia led to famine-like conditions for hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans, in large part because the Ethiopian government has severely restricted or outright denied humanitarian access to the region for over a year. Ongoing political instability has combined with climate crises in Somalia to internally displace nearly three million people, further disrupting livelihoods and agriculture. Moreover, as resources dwindle and communities become more desperate, food insecurity itself can become a driver of conflict as people compete for scarce grazing land and access to water.

The latest blow to the food security outlook has been the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan source almost all their wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. The World Food Program, meanwhile, buys more than half of the wheat it distributes around the world from Ukraine. Supplies will be squeezed and prices will rise, including for fuel, which will make transporting food in the region even more expensive.

What risks does hunger present for political stability?

Rising food prices have historically led to social unrest in many parts of the world, and Africa is no exception. Sudan’s rising bread prices in 2018 sparked the protests that ultimately brought down Omar al-Bashir’s government. The politics of food security in Ethiopia are so loaded that a government’s ability to prevent famine is a major marker of political legitimacy. Candidates in Kenya’s upcoming elections will undoubtedly seek to link their opponents to the rising food insecurity, a tactic that could potentially stoke tensions. It is impossible to imagine that there will be no political fallout from this crisis.

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A woman carrying a baby on her back feeds a goat outside her house in Wajir, Kenya.
A woman feeds a goat outside her house in Wajir, Kenya. World Food Program/Reuters

What should international partners be doing to help?

To get through the months ahead, a robust humanitarian response is vital. The United States, already concerned about the geopolitical competition for access and influence along the coast of some of the world’s busiest and most strategic sea lanes, has a real stake in the region’s stability. So do other external powers, such as European Union countries, which are likely to receive the lion’s share of migrants should scarcity and crisis prompt an exodus. These countries will need to resist donor fatigue and ensure that the multiple urgent crises around the world do not diminish the capacity to respond to appeals from multilateral organizations. They should at the same time provide direct assistance to people in desperate need.

International partners should also address the underlying causes of the crisis. That requires jumpstarting diplomatic efforts to help sustainably resolve the conflicts that are making it worse. It also requires more support for climate change adaptation and resilience in the region. Africans are suffering from the effects of a global problem that they had virtually no hand in creating, and major emitters have not met their responsibility to assist them in coping with these consequences.

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Finally, just as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many countries to take a hard look at pharmaceutical supply chains, African governments and global relief agencies will be thinking about diversifying food supply chains in the wake of the current, multilayered crisis. International partners can play an important role in supporting sound strategies to strengthen East Africa’s food systems.

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