November 27, 2008 / 1:44 PM / 9 years ago

Sahel Africans face hunger despite bumper harvest

By Daniel Magnowski

DAKAR, Nov 27 (Reuters) - Poor people in Africa’s arid Sahel region will go without food despite bumper harvests this year, as wild price moves on world markets put staple cereals beyond many families’ budgets, aid agencies say. Prices of imported foods have ballooned in recent years, pushing up prices for locally grown crops even though harvests are expected to be bigger than ever after abundant rains.

"The nature of food insecurity has changed in West Africa," Alexander Woollcombe, Food Security Advocacy Advisor at Oxfam GB told Reuters. "It’s not a problem of production. The problem is, poor people can’t afford to buy it."

Oxfam expects cereal production across five countries in the dry Sahel belt south of the Sahara — Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal — will be a record 18.5 million tonnes this year, but the food on sale will be beyond the budget of many in these, some of the world’s poorest countries.

Launching a study in partnership with Save the Children in the Senegalese capital on Wednesday, Oxfam said food prices in general rose by 83 percent between 2005 and 2008. This has been felt in poor households whose major expense is food.

"The rise in price of food commodities has severely hit the poorest people, who allocate up to 80 percent of their income to food," Aboubacry Tall, regional director for Save the Children UK, said in a statement.


African countries have come to rely on imported food.

Prices were so cheap at the start of the decade that buying from international markets took the place of growing locally. But now those prices are much higher, Sahelians are struggling to afford foreign rice and other cereals.

"An important structural effect is dependence on imports," said Eric Hazard, Oxfam’s regional campaign manager for economic justice in West Africa.

"In Mauritania, 75 percent depend on imported food and food aid, and in such a context the situation is difficult."

Neighbouring Senegal is a major importer of rice from Asia, high prices of which were in part behind a government campaign launched earlier this year to boost agricultural production.

The benchmark Thai rice contract RI-THWHB-P1 closed on Wednesday at $580/tonne, well down from the peak of $1,080 it hit in April but still around double its price in November 2005.

In the long term, African government policy should permit local farmers to profit from high food prices, the agencies’ report said.

"The putting in place of a protective common external tariff, and safeguard mechanisms appropriate for farmers and agro-industries of (West African economic bloc) ECOWAS has become a priority," it said.

For the time being, wild price fluctuations are likely to continue as a result of the state of the world economy, according to a European Commission draft paper this week. [ID:nLQ621117]

Though isolated to a degree from the international banking system, Africa may suffer knock-on effects from the global financial crisis if remittances to family members from Africans working in the West, a crucial part of local economies, shrink as more people in Europe and United States lose their jobs.

Rich nations pledged billions to tackle hunger at a United Nations summit in Rome earlier this year, but those sums have since been dwarfed by the money spent on saving failing financial institutions. Aid agencies worry that with banking meltdowns and the effects of recession hogging the headlines and the political priorities of rich countries, food shortages in Africa will slip down the world’s agenda, Woollcombe said.

"We are concerned that the financial crisis will mean less attention on the food crisis, which disproportionately affects the world’s poorest," he said. (Editing by Alistair Thomson)

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