A Geographer Reads the Newspapers.

            One thing connects to another thing in surprising ways.[1]  East African countries don’t raise enough food to feed their people.[2]  East African countries make up the deficit by imports.    

Well, somebody makes up the deficit.  Mostly, this work is done and paid for by humanitarian Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) like the World Food Program of the United Nations and Mercy Corps and Oxfam International.  The NGOs, in turn, depend upon charitable contributions from individuals, corporations, and governments in the West. 

            Before and after Communism, southern Russia (including the Ukraine until the break-up of the Soviet Union) were important farm crop exporters.  Now, Southern Russia and independent Ukraine continue to serve as key sources of wheat, soybeans, and barley.  Because of lower transportation costs, these regions have developed large markets in East Africa.  Food imports to East Africa can come from the Americas or from the Black Sea ports like Odessa.  The New Orleans, USA—Mombasa, Kenya route is 10,764 nautical miles and takes 45 days.  The Odessa, Ukraine—Mombasa, Kenya route is 4,975 nautical miles and takes 20 days.  So the shipping cost that has to be added to the price of the grain is about double for Midwestern American wheat for example.  As a result, fourteen East African countries import half of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia.  Eritrea imports all of its wheat. 

            East Africa is beset by natural and man-made disasters.  There is a civil war in Ethiopia, Islamist terrorism in Somalia, and long-running ethnic conflicts in Sudan.  In recent years, a locust infestation has battered Kenya,[3] Covid has hammered the under-vaccinated region, and heavy rains have flooded much of South Sudan.[4]  Taken together, those problems make farming and stock-raising difficult. 

            On top of this, a drought has hit East Africa.[5]  A product of “La Nina,” the drought has caused the lowest rainfall in forty years all across East Africa.[6]  Crops have failed, herds have died.[7]  Thirteen million people in East Africa are hungry. 

People began moving off the parched land.  Mostly this has meant walking across the parched landscape toward some city.  In theory, it is up to the government to do something.  More importantly, that is where they will find the international aid agencies that actually try to do something. 

Then came the war in Ukraine.  Exports are disrupted, especially from Ukraine.  The Russian Navy has blockaded Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, while its Army is assaulting ports like Mariupol and—perhaps soon—Odessa.  Ukraine’s transportation system is diverted to the war effort.  Hence, exports are down, risk-premiums apply, and the costs of wheat have risen.  For example, the price of cooking oil has risen from $32 for 20 liters to $50; the price of beans from $18 to $28 for 25 kilograms.[8]  Wheat imports by Sudan have fallen by 60 percent. 

The donors who pay for the operations of the humanitarian NGOs do not have unlimited resources.  Nor do they have unlimited attention.  The sudden humanitarian crisis in Ukraine may have diverted some charitable giving from East Africa to Eastern Europe. 

The current estimated death total in the Ukraine-Russia War is 13,000-15,000.  The death toll in the last East African drought in 2011 is contested.  Some estimate that 50,000 died, while others put the toll at above a quarter million.[9]  Yes, we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.  What if we can’t? 


[1] Abdi Latif Dahir, “War in Ukraine Worsens Hunger in East Africa,” New York Times, 2 April 2022. 

[2] For an analysis of potential improvements in the agriculture of Sub-Saharan Africa, see: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/agriculture/our-insights/winning-in-africas-agricultural-market#:~:text=Agriculture%20in%20Africa%20has%20a,full%20agricultural%20potential%20remains%20untapped.  You can take back-bearings to figure out why this potential has not been achieved already. 

[3] See: https://www.npr.org/2021/01/19/958543535/locust-swarms-threaten-parts-of-east-africa

[4] See: https://floodlist.com/africa/south-sudan-floods-update-december-2021 

[5] See: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/historic-drought-looms-for-20-million-living-in-horn-of-africa 

[6] On “la Nina,” see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Ni%C3%B1a 

[7] In Kenya, 1.5 million livestock have perished. 

[8] Roughly, 4 liters to the US gallon; and 2 pounds to 1 kilogram. 

[9] Compare https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Russo-Ukrainian_War#Total_casualties

 with https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_East_Africa_drought 

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