The standoff over Russian troop deployment along Ukraine’s border has implications for the whole world, with the potential for major disruption to essential commodity supplies, from gas to wheat looming large.
In North Africa, the crisis threatens grain supplies to regional states, especially with almost all these states being heavily dependent on grain imports from outside their borders.
North Africa contains by far the world’s largest wheat importers. Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya produce less than half the amount of grains, especially wheat that their populations consume every year.
These countries’ grain imports come from a wide range of suppliers including Ukraine and the Russian Federation.
The military build-up around Ukraine is evolving into a showdown between Russia and Nato, with the North Atlantic alliance’s member states viewing a Russian invasion of its neighbour an invasion of them all and as the drums of war beat in eastern Europe, the alarm is being sounded in North Africa.
Ukraine, the world’s fifth largest wheat producer in 2019, exports most of its output to North African states. Unfortunately, the eastern regions of Ukraine, which are most vulnerable to a potential Russian attack, contain its most productive farmland.
Between July last year and the end of January this year, Russia exported millions of tonnes of wheat to North African states as well.
If war breaks out, Russian wheat exports are sure to be adversely affected, especially if the conflict drags on for a long time.
Meanwhile, severe drought levels in most of North Africa, including in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, are also expected to raise grain imports.
Egypt, which by far is the world’s largest importer of wheat, expects to be severely affected by possible disruptions to wheat supplies from Russia and Ukraine. With a population of 102 million and rising, it imported 12.5m tonnes of wheat in 2020-21.
While Egypt is working hard to increase its own wheat output, its current dependence on imports would make any Ukrainian conflict very bad news. Almost 85 percent of Egypt’s wheat imports in 2020-21 came from Russia and Ukraine.
A member of the grains section at the Cairo chamber of commerce, Hesham Abuldahab said Egypt will be deeply affected in case the war erupts between Russia and Ukraine. “Most of our wheat imports come from these two countries.”
Bread is an indispensable part of Egyptians’ diet and threats to supplies from specific suppliers may tempt the Egyptian government to search for alternatives.
In Tunisia, as well, economic problems are likely to be compounded by growing tensions between Russia and its adversaries.
A country of around 11 million people, Tnisia has been mired in political problems since July last year, when its president, Kais Saied, sacked the cabinet, dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution.
Tunisia relies heavily on grain imports from other countries. Wheat makes up almost half of Tunisia’s overall cereal imports and these come from a wide range of suppliers, on top of which are Ukraine and Russia.
The North African nation, which grew grains on 810,000 hectares of its farmland in 2021, produced 1.6m tonnes of grains in that year, less than half its national needs.
This comes as the Arab country’s farmers stay away from growing wheat on their farmland due to a series of factors, including the low prices set by the government for the purchase of the cereal.
Climate change is also having an impact on Tunisia’s ability to produce enough food for its people, with factors such as insufficient rainfall and droughts playing a part.
The potential supply crisis also comes at a bad time for Algeria, another North African state heavily dependent on grain imports from other countries.
Insufficient rains last year caused a staggering drop of 40 percent in Algeria’s grain output, including wheat, meaning Algerian authorities had to make up for the shortages by increasing imports.
Having previously relied on European wheat, Algeria imported it from Russia last year for the first time in five years, due to changes in its import specifications.
Wheat imports in Algeria are expected to rise to 8m tonnes this year, even as the country struggles to reduce dependence on imports, including by reclaiming land in the desert.
In late January, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune called for increasing agricultural production, especially the production of grains, considering this an issue of “national dignity”.