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Econographics April 5, 2024

Ukraine’s grain exports are crucial to Africa’s food security

By Yulia Bychkovska

Ukrainian grain exports, especially wheat, make up a large portion of African grain imports. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, in 2020, over 50 percent of fifteen African countries’ imports of wheat came from Ukraine and Russia. Moreover, for six of these countries (Eritrea, Egypt, Benin, Sudan, Djibouti, and Tanzania) more than 70 percent of their wheat imports came from Ukraine or Russia. Russia’s full-scale invasion disrupted the exporting process due to the blockade of the Black Sea, occupation of territories, and active fighting. Along with the sharp increase in the cost, the Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered a shortage of about 30 million tons of grains on the African continent in the first year of the war alone.

Moscow is trying to increase Africa’s dependence on its imports further by blocking the exports of Ukrainian grain. Russia pulled out of the Grain Deal that allowed Ukraine to export its grain despite Russia’s war. The Kremlin then offered Africa free grain transport to increase its sales and Africa’s reliance on Russian grain. Additionally, Russian propaganda has gained huge traction in Africa claiming that Western sanctions are to blame for the increases in grain prices and not Russia’s war against Ukraine.

By helping Ukraine sell its grain, the West can offer the African continent an alternative to Russia’s grain and decrease Russia’s profits.

New solutions are needed for Ukrainian grain exports

Ukrainian grain is key to global food security, which is why the West should protect and invest in Ukraine’s agriculture sector. Before the war, about 90 percent of Ukraine’s agricultural products were exported by sea. By blocking the Black Sea ports at the beginning of the war, Russia brought exports to a standstill, raising global food prices. Moreover, Ukraine’s grain production dropped by 29 percent in 2022-2023. The US and EU should help Ukraine modernize its infrastructure and create alternative shipping routes both through land and sea.

Since exiting the Grain Deal in July 2023, Russia has damaged about 200 facilities in Ukrainian ports. While the current grain arrangement allows Ukraine to export about 22 million tons of grain, Russia constantly attacks the ports and shipments, damaging infrastructure, destroying and stealing shipments, and taking human lives. Despite the risks, Ukrainians are trying to quickly rebuild and modernize the ports. And, even with the current arrangement, Ukraine can further increase sea exports of grain. The West should invest in the rebuilding and modernization of existing Ukrainian ports and connecting infrastructure, such as roads and railways, which could allow an increase of exports by a quarter, at least. This positive economic statecraft measure will also attract private investors to the Ukrainian agricultural and infrastructure sectors, helping Ukraine to make up for lost production and build new capacity.

To make up for sea export losses, Ukraine, with the European Union’s help, also developed land routes that allowed the shipping of grain. This solution, however, was temporary, since Polish farmers blocked the border and destroyed around 160 tons of Ukrainian grain. These protests are undermining Polish support for Ukraine and further damaging global food security. The EU needs to intervene and negotiate a deal for Ukraine to continue shipping grain through Poland. While this is in the works, the EU should help increase the capacity of other EU routes for Ukrainian grain to Africa, such as through Romania and Slovakia.

Positive economic statecraft can help Africa ensure food security

Multilateral organizations, including the World Bank and the Group of Seven (G7), have been trying to mitigate the effects of the food crisis in Africa. Among other projects in Africa, the World Bank provided $2.75 billion to the Food Systems Resilience Program for Eastern and Southern Africa which helps countries in Eastern and Southern Africa tackle growing food insecurity. The G7 also committed billions to mitigate food insecurity. These actions, however, are not enough, as nearly 50 million people are expected to go hungry in West and Central Africa this year. Moreover, millions in southern Africa are threatened with hunger due to extreme drought.

The West should employ positive economic statecraft tools to deal with war-caused food security issues. That should include working with its allies and partners in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which can help increase food security, by increasing the availability of affordable fertilizer. Positive measures can also help African countries to develop their own agriculture sectors. Africa has over 65 percent of the world’s uncultivated land, which shows the continent can sustain its food needs if the infrastructure is in place. Supporting existing organizations, such as the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), can allow applying local expertise to build government and private capacity to expand agricultural sectors on the continent.

Positive economic statecraft, such as increasing Ukraine’s exports to the continent and supporting African initiatives like AfCFTA and AGRA will help Africa increase food security. These measures will also help Ukraine make up for export losses from Russia’s war and allow African countries to decrease reliance on Russian grain exports.

Yulia Bychkovska is a former young global professional at the Economic Statecraft Initiative within the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center. Follow her at @YuliaB.

At the intersection of economics, finance, and foreign policy, the GeoEconomics Center is a translation hub with the goal of helping shape a better global economic future.

Further reading

Image: Bulk carrier ship in Ukrainian river port, June 8, 2020. iStock/Olivia Sabeskaya