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Hunger’s Vicious Cycle: Intersecting food price, security and political crises in Burkina Faso

Climate shocks and rising global input costs are converging with internal conflict and political instability, triggering devastating food price increases in Burkina Faso.

by Dieudonné Edouard Sango | 2022-11-02

Hunger’s Vicious Cycle: Intersecting food price, security and political crises in Burkina Faso

5 November 2022 marks six weeks since calm returned to Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, following the second military coup to rock the country in less than a year. Having suffered seven years of insecurity, 20 million Burkinabè have decided to place their hope in the new transitional government, led by Captain Ibrahim Traoré.

But the country is grappling with another existential threat: an ever-worsening food crisis. Stepping out into some of Ouagadougou’s food markets in the weeks following the second military coup this year is a stark reminder of the vicious cycle my city is trapped in, and how vulnerable we’ve become to external shocks. One only has to pick up a bag of maize, or a bottle of basic cooking oil, to understand the depth of our national crisis.

Figures released by the National Society for Food Security Stock Management show that the price of a 100-kg bag of maize has risen by 36% from 37 EUR in 2021 to 50 EUR in 2022. Meanwhile cooking oil prices have almost doubled, to between 11 and 12 EUR depending on location. The price explosion does not only concern cereals, but also processed food staples that are mostly imported, such as rice, pasta and sugar. In the food stores we visited in the urban centres of Bendogo and in Borgho, a peri-urban village, the price of a standard 25-kg bag of rice has risen from between 13 and 15 EUR to nearly 20 EUR. At the same time, the price of a kilo of maize flour has risen almost six-fold, from an average of 1 EUR in 2021.

Burkinabè have never in their memory witnessed such a surge in the price of certain staple foods,” writes journalist Bernard Kaboré in Le Point Afrique. He cites Issaka Ouedraogo, a 60-year old cereals trader at Nabiyaré market who has not witnessed such exorbitant prices in three decades. “…a yoruba [measure of unit equivalent to 3kg] of maize which used to cost between 450 and 500 CFA francs (0.69 to 0.77 EUR cents), now costs 900 CFA francs (1.38 EUR),” he says.

These inflationary trends are continuing to a steep decline in purchasing power. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Demography, inflation rates have sky rocketed in recent months, from 7.2% in January to 18.1% in August 2022. This is highest inflation rate in the West African Economic and Monetary Union zone. The economic and social consequences are devastating for a country with a minimum wage of 30,684 CFA francs (46.78 EUR), and where most low-income people live on around 1 EUR a day.

An increasingly vulnerable economy

Four key underlying factors explain the rapid inflation rates in the “Land of Upright People”: the impact of the climate crisis on agricultural yields; the negative effect on the economy following years of conflict and political instability; disrupted trade flows due to the closure of borders linked to the Covid-19 pandemic; and the global consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on the price of wheat flour, gasoline and fertilizers.

In Burkina Faso, 80% of the population is dependent on subsistence agriculture and livestock keeping. However, agricultural practices are still traditional, and production remains highly dependent on favourable climatic conditions and healthy natural ecosystems. Climate change is further increasing the severity of weather patterns (both drought and flooding), which leads to decreased production and forces farmers into survivalist measures that further degrade their lands. Sambo Maiga, an internal migrant points out that declining soil fertility is exacerbated by declining access to water and the reduction of arable land. The Institute of Environment and Agricultural Research estimates that soil erosion affects 24% of agricultural land in the country, with a degradation rate of 3,600 hectares per year. This not only negatively affects agricultural yields and the living conditions in rural areas, but also limits access by urban consumers.

A February 2022 report by the Ministry of Trade concluded that the global disruption of production and transport chains due to the Covid-19 pandemic was the primary cause of food price hikes. The steep rise in freight costs from US$ 800 in March 2019 to US$ 6,500 in August 2021 for Asia/Europe/USA/Africa shipping routes explains the overpricing of raw materials, but also of agricultural inputs and equipment. Since Burkina Faso imports nearly 70% of its food needs, each exogenous shock has had a direct impact on the costs across the entire agrifood chain.

Beyond the Covid-19 crisis, it is an undeniable fact that internal conflict since 2015, compounded by political instability, are further amplifying inflationary trends. Based on interviews with Ouagadougou residents, Bernard Kaboré reports that this spike is mainly a result of jihadist attacks primarily targeting northern parts of the country, including agricultural areas. Most of the grain sold in the cities comes from the Boucle du Mouhoun in the northwest region of the country, which has been subject to armed attacks.

There are currently nearly 1.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) — many of them farmers — fleeing the conflict zones to cities such as Ouagadougou. This leads to overcrowding and depletion of food reserves, in part due to reduced access to farms, or looting and destruction of farms by armed terrorist groups. Ministry of Agriculture data indicates an approximately 5% drop in cereal production in the 2019–2020 agricultural season, which further dropped by 9% in the 2021–2022 season.

The country’s internal conflict is creating an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The United Nations estimates that 4.9 million Burkinabè are in need of humanitarian aid, of which 3.4 million people are severely food insecure. Rising costs of living, and fears of an even more severe food crisis to come, is in turn causing political instability, as evidenced by two successive coups within a year. Additionally, Burkina Faso’s economy has been weakened by its strained relationship with the international community, and peer states in the ECOWAS region, with whom it has ratified several trade agreements.

Internal, sustainable solutions are needed to avoid a serious food crisis

Against this vicious cycle of crises, vulnerability and instability, social measures must count as much as military measures.

Price regulation: The initial response of the city government to these accelerated crises was to convene a series of consultations with relevant stakeholders in order to control the soaring prices of basic goods. This resulted in a price cap on locally manufactured food products and the reduction of customs duties to the tune of 14 billion CFA francs (more than EUR 21 million). However, failure to adhere to these agreements led to a food price control operation by the Ministry of Trade in August 2022. Notwithstanding, it is likely that despite attempts to keep prices down food prices will remain high for the foreseeable future.

Focusing on restoring local production of staple food: From a rural perspective, the new military junta is committed to revitalize agricultural production by securing water resources to increase production in the off-season to make up for the cereal deficit.

However, the ongoing urban migration crisis underscores that integrated rural-urban solutions are needed. While there is the hope that many of the IDP’s will return to their homes and farms in the coming months, many may remain in cities. This highlights the importance of diversifying food production and supply options — including expanding controlled environment farming approaches to help de-risk urban food systems.

The community kitchen of Foyer FAMA is one such example. Foyer FAMA provides accommodation for IDPs, while also providing them with the means to produce their own food. This reduces their dependence on humanitarian aid, while also contributing a concrete solution declining land access and climate change impacts. However, while controlled environment agriculture holds the potential to improve dietary diversity and local livelihoods, it is just one pillar in a wider set of solutions. Efforts to localize urban food supplies need to be supported by a much wider set of interventions at a national level, including peace building efforts to stabilize rural supply, the strengthening of inter-regional trade and building up local grain reserves to buffer against external shocks. These national efforts will need to be supported by ongoing interim food aid, support for climate change adaptation and mitigation, and a wider regional effort to promote sustainable agricultural practices that are less reliant on expensive fossil-fuel-based fertilizers.

Edited by Wangu Mwangi

This article is part of a series by TMG’s Urban Food Futures Programme which aims to contribute transformative changes for more resilient and inclusive urban food systems in African cities. The set of articles comprise our findings from scoping research done in Ouagadougou, Nairobi, and Cape Town between October 2021 and March 2022. Click here to read our latest report on measures such urban communities in the three locations use to cope with food crises.

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