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Geopolitics & Security

Ending the Vicious Cycle: The Global Repercussions of the Food Crisis in the Sahel and Horn of Africa

Briefing19th December 2022

The international community ignores the food crisis in the Sahel and Horn of Africa at its own peril. Left unaddressed, the consequences of this complex crisis will not only be an uptick in political instability and extremist violence in the region but also mass migration, first within Africa but likely to reach European shores too. Swift action is needed on this rapidly escalating global challenge.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has had global repercussions, with disrupted supply chains, soaring energy costs and wildly fluctuating food prices placing compounded pressure on the world’s most vulnerable. Countries in the Sahel and Horn of Africa are reliant on Russian and Ukrainian wheat, grain and oil imports to varying degrees but across both regions, the war has heaped an unwelcome layer of pressure onto already struggling food systems. In the Horn of Africa, rising temperatures and sustained drought had affected more than 36 million people as of October 2022. Both Somalia and Eritrea import more than 90 per cent of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia and 60 per cent of their total food supply is from abroad. While the UN may have successfully negotiated the safe passage of grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, only two shipments have made it to the Horn of Africa, with Putin increasingly making it clear he is willing to use the agreement to get his way. This sustained disruption to supplies has forced an additional 70 million people into food crisis since the war began in February, according to figures from the World Food Programme (WFP).

Disrupted Supply Chains

Neither Russia nor Ukraine feature in the top five exporters of food to the Sahel. Nevertheless, countries there are feeling the fallout. Supply chains for global fertiliser have been thrown into chaos because Russia is the world’s largest exporter of the product, accounting for 15 per cent of the market. Between March and April 2022, the price of fertiliser jumped by more than 25 per cent. It has levelled out since but remains 10 per cent higher than immediately before the war. While countries in the Sahel may not be affected directly by disrupted food supplies from Russia, the input costs in the countries they do import from – and for smallholders producing their own food – have been soaring. Brazil, one of the biggest food exporters to the Sahel, imports 95 per cent of its chemical fertiliser – the majority coming from Russia and Ukraine. The result is unprecedented price fluctuation that has led to Mali and Burkina Faso being two of only four countries on the WFP’s list of “high-risk and deteriorating” countries.

Turmoil in food and energy has not only impacted the ability of countries to feed their citizens, it is also compromising the ability of humanitarian organisations to step in and support. At the peak of soaring food and energy prices earlier this year, the WFP’s operational costs increased by US$71 million a month, a 44 per cent rise compared with the same period in 2019. The result is that humanitarian organisations have to scale back their emergency-relief programmes, making tough decisions on funding priorities and removing a safety net for those facing famine. In South Sudan, for example, the WFP’s shortfall means that only two-thirds of those targeted for assistance have received it, leaving 1.7 million people on the brink of starvation.

The international community needs to be thinking more imaginatively about how it tackles the fallout of a war that has not only disrupted global supply chains, but also drawn attention away from low-income countries while eating into shrinking foreign-aid budgets. Nevertheless, these food crises will not be solved purely by putting an end to the conflict. Climate change, the pandemic and political instability were already putting food systems under strain long before Putin invaded Ukraine. What the war does remind us is how vulnerable countries are to external shocks. Simply striving to return to business as usual when it comes to aid and financing will not suffice. The Sahel and Horn of Africa in particular need innovative and adaptive food systems powered by investment that involves the phasing out of an overreliance on food imports and aid.

The Role of Climate Change

Higher temperatures, erratic rainfall and desertification devastate the pastoral and nomadic-agriculture systems so critical to countries in the Sahel and Horn of Africa. More than 20 million people in the Sahel are thought to live by raising cattle while more than half the population of Somalia and South Sudan, countries located in the Horn of Africa, are nomadic herders or semi-settled livestock farmers, underlining the huge impact that disruptions to nomadic agriculture have in these regions. Without immediate, sustained action to help people adapt to the new climate reality, these countries will continue to experience high levels of hunger and water shortages in the decades to come.

African countries have contributed little to climate change: less than 3.8 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Yet many find themselves on the frontline of the climate crisis. Drought conditions have destroyed crops and livestock herds. In Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, more than 36 million people are impacted by ongoing drought as a result of three successive failed rainy seasons while more than 16.2 million people, nearly half of whom are children, cannot access enough water for drinking, cooking and cleaning across the Horn of Africa. Extreme flooding has also wrecked livelihoods, with both Sudan and South Sudan experiencing destroyed land, ruined infrastructure and whole areas left inaccessible. The weather’s unpredictability is seriously damaging food and water systems, plunging millions into hunger.

In the Sahel, steadily increasing average temperatures mean that millions of hectares of farmland are lost to the Sahara each year. Burkina Faso alone has lost more than 9 million hectares once used for agriculture. With desert encroaching on land that would have otherwise been cultivated, more forests are at risk of being cleared to make way for productive agricultural land, further aggravating the effects of climate change and causing more desertification over the long run. Rising average temperatures also increase the risk of bushfires, which similarly destroy swathes of the hardy, indigenous vegetation that provides the only natural defence against the steady expansion of the Sahara.

The international community isn’t addressing the scale or the longevity of these challenges. Too much focus is on disaster relief and humanitarian aid, rather than the long-term, preventative and adaptive action needed. In fact, analysis by the Climate Policy Initiative in 2020 found that of the total global climate financing of $580 billion, a disproportionate 90 per cent was spent on mitigation – projects that avoid, reduce or stabilise emissions – with less than 10 per cent going to adaptation initiatives – those required to help countries adapt to the changes that cannot be avoided.

Mitigation projects are of limited relevance to many African countries. Mitigating carbon emissions in these regions will not make any serious dent in global emissions nor will it help people there adapt to the new climate reality. This doesn’t mean there is no role for clean-energy projects in building the long-term energy security of these regions, but they should only be one aspect of a renewed approach on climate financing. Additionally, agriculture needs to benefit more from climate financing: of the total $580 billion in 2020, only $20 billion – or less than 3.5 per cent – went to agriculture, forestry and land-use projects. If we are to make long-term progress in parts of the world facing the greatest food crises, the structure and targeting of climate-finance flows need to look radically different.

Food Insecurity Fuels Political Insecurity

Food-price fluctuation and regional instability can provide fertile ground for the extremism that has plagued large parts of the Sahel and Horn of Africa. Food scarcity and the conflict over resources force populations into closer contact, often leading to an escalation of violence, while entrenched economic stagnation caused by instability in turn hinders food production and markets.

In these regions, cross-border trade and traditional routes used by nomadic herders have been disrupted, by both climate events and extremist violence. This often accelerates migration to bigger population centres, creating huge numbers of internally displaced people and exacerbating demands on the food system.

The recent increase in regional conflict in the Sahel has led to an unprecedented rise in the amount of internally displaced people from 217,000 in 2013 to 2.9 million today. In Burkina Faso alone, the numbers have shot up to nearly 2 million today. Across several countries, the central government has lost control over large swathes of its territory as non-state armed groups seize control of rural regions while a succession of coups has weakened legitimacy. Seven coups in two years in Sahel countries have led to disillusionment with the state and its ability to deliver on security, fuelling armed insurgents that only cause more conflict and insecurity. Behind some of the coups and support for non-state actors is the legitimate discontent among populations on a plethora of issues, including food.

The situation is no better in the Horn of Africa. Protracted conflict with non-state armed groups such as the insurgents al-Shabab as well as the ongoing civil conflict in Ethiopia have caused large-scale displacement. According to monitoring by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHRC), the number of internally displaced people in the region increased once again, amounting to a total of 12.83 million people. There are an additional 4.5 million who are transnational refugees and asylum seekers. As in the Sahel, these rising numbers put yet more pressure on food systems because settled farmers are separated from their land while nomadic or semi-settled farmers have their transhumant herding routes disrupted.

Analysis of the geography of the food crisis reveals the direct impact of political instability and conflict. Of the more than 13 million people in Ethiopia that require humanitarian food assistance, the majority are in the conflict-affected zones of Afar, Amhara and Tigray. A recently negotiated peace deal offers hope that aid will be able to reach affected areas at the scale required although it is worth remembering that a previous ceasefire lasted only six months. In Somalia, approximately one-in-seven of all those affected by drought – 900,000 people – are from regions under al-Shabab control or influence.

Halting the continuous cycle of food insecurity, political instability and displaced people could seem like an insurmountable task. However, rather than admitting defeat, those addressing the issue must recognise the importance of improved governance and political stability.

Actions the International Community Can Take

Foreign aid and investment are being hit hard by advanced economies tightening their purse strings at exactly the time that many low-income countries need it the most. In the Sahel and Horn of Africa, this means the priority has to be spending smartly. More than just the stopgap measures needed to prevent hunger on a mass scale, smart spending means fostering long-term stability in parts of the world where the threats to global security are the most prevalent while recognising when issues such as carbon emissions, resource extraction or military intervention fall under the sphere of joint responsibility.

  • Humanitarian assistance needs to be twinned with long-term investment in resilient food systems. Donor countries must plan and implement solutions with the relevant technical government ministries and systems to avoid the duplication of efforts on the same problems. The key to effective investment is efficiency that strengthens rather than supplants government capacity.

  • Advanced economies need to revive their climate commitments to low- and middle-income countries, ensuring that adaptation becomes more of a focus of climate financing.

  • International-aid budgets need to be channelled to the sectors most affected by climate change, including agriculture, and those projects likely to have the most impact in building resilience.

  • To build agricultural resilience, there needs to be greater investment and technical support for governments in low-income countries to implement and integrate new technologies that will help them adapt food production to changing conditions. Whether drought-resilient seeds, solar-powered micro-drip irrigation systems or solar-powered cold-chain technologies, the instruments are available to achieve adaptation.

  • Greater cooperation needs to be facilitated between relevant organisations in the Sahel and Horn of Africa. Sahel countries are represented by multilateral structures such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and, to a lesser extent after Mali’s coup, the G5. Meanwhile, it is the Horn of Africa Initiative or the UN Special Envoy to the Horn that represents this region. Cooperation between these two regions remains informal today but a formal body of regional and international actors to facilitate the sharing of ideas and solutions to common problems could help on issues such as the food crisis.

  • Once adequately regulated, carbon-trading projects should be regulated and directed to the Sahel and Horn of Africa. The underlying structure of carbon trading – in other words, big polluters transferring funds to projects in climate-affected countries – is the right one. With the right oversight and direction, this could be a useful mechanism.


With the number of internally displaced people across the Sahel and Horn of Africa estimated to total 16.4 million, the security implications for Africa and beyond are clear. There is more than just a moral imperative to act: ensuring stability in these regions is key to preventing broader spillover that will ultimately affect European countries too. Recent clashes at the EU border in the Spanish territory of Melilla in North Africa are a reminder of the impact this crisis is already having on global security. In the Sahel, there are signs that jihadist groups are expanding their operations into neighbouring Ghana, Guinea and Togo while Russian paramilitary groups, which already have a foothold in Mali, are eyeing up opportunities in Burkina Faso. The incentive to act could not be clearer: to ensure global stability, the resilience of communities in both regions must be assured, starting by addressing the complex reasons for failing food systems. In short, moving the Sahel and Horn of Africa higher up the foreign-policy agenda is in everyone’s long-term interest.

Thanks to our directors, advisors and teams based in Africa for their input, including Maggie Janes-Lucas, Grant Merrick, Liz Kirk, Domenico Vincenzo Papisca, Farouk Sana and Tebila Nakelse.

Lead Image: Getty Images

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