From Joburg to Nairobi, soaring food prices are biting hard

Anne Njuguna runs Sugarbaked, a corner bakery in Loresho, a Nairobi middle-class neighbourhood. In the three years since she started the business, she hasn’t seen anything like the current price surge. 

The costs of almost all her ingredients have shot up and it has become impossible to forecast demand and profit margins, she says. She had already increased her prices in December and plans to do so again in May. 

In Johannesburg, 49-year-old Anziswa Ndlovu, a mother of three in Cosmo City, Gauteng, recounts what the Covid-19 pandemic cost her. 

She lost her job in 2020 when she was already battling to keep her children in school but now just putting food on the table has become an all-consuming struggle. “I had to cut down on the number of meals. From four meals per day we now eat in the morning and wait for supper in the evening.” 

The average cost of a basic household food basket is now 10% higher than it was in early 2021, national data shows. 

In Accra, Ghana, a plantain trader said: “We make very little from the business” because of “the hike in fuel prices leading to an increase in transport fares”. 

Such economic pressures translate almost directly into higher prices. Across the continent prices of basic goods are skyrocketing, turning ordinary foods into luxuries. 

This is compounding an already significant problem because, as International Monetary Fund data show, Africans already spend more of their income on food than other parts of the world, at nearly half of household income.

In Kenya, prices have shot up by eye-watering margins over the past year. Since last April, the cost of a litre of cooking oil has risen by nearly 42% and the cost of a 2kg bag of wheat by roughly 25%, according to the country’s national statistics office. 

A net importer of food, Kenya imported approximately 34% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine before the war.

In South Africa, according to data from the latest Household Affordability Index released by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity group, the price of cooking oil rose by 42% between April 2021 and April 2022 and other food items, including polony, beef liver, apples, butternut, frozen chicken, margarine, spinach, eggs, potatoes and tea, have seen price hikes of up to 31% in the same period.

On top of reducing the number of meals she gives her children, Ndlovu is also cutting back on what’s on the plate. Sandwiches have become just two slices of bread. “Margarine has gone up and so have eggs and polony. So we have resorted to just plain bread.”

Roots: Wheat farmer Zeleke Alabachew works on his wheat crop in Gondar, Ethiopia

In Nairobi, Njuguna is seeing her middle-class clientele making similar decisions. Some are forgoing the luxury of her baked goods. She now offers “bundle deals” — pairing goods whose ingredients are facing high price fluctuations, like cake, with those that aren’t, like cookies.

The politics of bread and butter dictate that citizens can’t simply adjust their consumption to offset all of the pressures of the increasing cost of living and analysts fear the situation is already boiling over.

“An empty stomach is not a good political adviser. Politics is about economics and economics is about bread and butter issues. Each time a country, community or family risks running out of food, you risk sociopolitical instability,” says Victor Kgomoeswana, a South African business specialist and commentator.

In Kenya, where a 2021 Gallup poll showed that roughly seven out of every 10 people said they had lacked money to buy enough food for themselves or their families over the past year, the cost of basic food began sparking online outrage in February this year. 

Ahead of the country’s elections in August, hashtags such as #LowerFoodPrices and #Njaa-Revolution are being tweeted or brandished on protest placards alongside #BoycottElections, #NoFoodNoVotes.

In July last year, South Africa saw its worst riots since the end of apartheid, triggered by the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma but also seen as an expression of desperation.

Ndlovu believes the only way people will be heard will be by taking to the streets again. “We are suffering and the only way our leaders will hear our cry is if we stage demonstrations against this price madness.”

Kenyan economist Ken Gichinga advises African governments that people want to see them “shift focus from funding infrastructure projects to putting money into businesses and [citizen’s] pockets”.

But the problem might be too layered for any single solution. Many of the factors driving the cost of living up both predate the present problems and exceed the geographies of these countries.

Even before the pandemic, Kenya’s economy was slowing down. The country has been servicing debt of more than eight trillion shillings ($69-billion), which Kenyans are bearing through heavily taxed goods. Things have only worsened with the government’s stopgap measures to bring inflation under control. In April, inflation rose to 6.47% — its highest in seven months.

Citizens, meanwhile, see the layered nature of the problem and are not holding much hope for solutions from the state.

Cramming a wrinkled 100 shilling ($8) note into his coat pocket after serving his last customer of the day, Francis Mwangi, a grocer in Nairobi’s Valley Arcade market, says he thinks Kenya’s economy became weak because a “weak opposition” failed to keep the government in check. He isn’t expecting any new leadership that might emerge from the elections later this year to save the day.

“Where would it get the money from to reduce the cost of goods?” he asks. “Or would they borrow even more money and make things worse?”  — Additional reporting by Marian Efe Ansah in Accra.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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