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Ukraine invasion sparks fears of hunger in eastern DR Congo

Rising prices for food, sent soaring by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are stoking fears of hunger and turmoil in a troubled corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In this vast, poor and fragile country in the heart of Africa, three-quarters of households live below the poverty threshold.

But precarity is especially keen in the DRC’s northeast, where the economy is hobbled by geographical remoteness and decades of violence.

“The authorities need to see what they can do, otherwise we are going to die of hunger,” said Pascaline Buhume, a food hawker in Bukavu, a city on the southern flank of Lake Kivu which separates the DRC from Rwanda.

The local price of corn meal, rice, sugar, oil and tomatoes have all shot up, posing a mighty challenge for those who have to survive on a couple of dollars a day.

A 50-kilo (110-pound) sack of sugar which previously cost the equivalent of $43 now goes for $60, said Buhume.

A 20-kilo canister of cooking oil now costs $45 instead of $30, and a 25-kilo sack of rice has risen from $18 to $20.

A worried mother-of-five pointed out that a loaf of bread that previously went for 1,000 Congolese francs (50 cents) now cost 1,200 francs.

Janvier Mizo Kabare, president of a Kinshasa-based consumer rights group called LICOSKI, said Bukavu was an inflationary hotspot, suffering not just from a “dizzying spiral” in food costs but also a worrying rise in the price of fuel.

The average cost for a tanker bringing in petrol from across the border has risen from $726 to $900, said Urbain Kange, secretary of Bukavu’s fuel industry association.

“We are doing what we can, but our suppliers in Tanzania, Rwanda and in Kenya tell us there is a shortage at their end,” he explained.

Several petrol stations in Bukavu are already out of fuel, and the scarcity itself forces up prices.

“Getting fuel is becoming a real hassle,” said Jeremie Cito, a motorbike taxi driver. As a result, he now had to charge 1,000 francs for a short run compared to 500 before, he added.

The situation is worsened by the fact that the province relies entirely on imports, said Paulin Bishakabalya, economics analyst with the Congo Federation of Businesses (FEC).

Rice, wheat, corn and oil could all be produced locally, he pointed out.

Eninga Abwe, who heads Bukavu’s external trade office, said inspectors were being sent out to check markets for price-gouging.

– Bottlenecks –

Russian’s invasion of Ukraine has dealt a blow to grain exports from both countries, which are major producers of wheat and other cereals.

Bishakabalya said the fog of uncertainty shrouding the world grain market was prompting some operators to hold back stock, and “that is pushing prices up too”.

“The government has to act urgently,” he said, calling for measures to spur production at home.

The DRC boasts massive mineral resource and millions of hectares (acres) of potential farmland.

But turning that land into productive agriculture requires capital to fix the country’s decrepit transport system and political will to address administrative and other bottlenecks.

According to the World Bank more than 70 percent of the DRC’s 90 million people live below the poverty threshold — less than $1.90 a day.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned on Monday that the Ukraine crisis meant the world had to act to prevent a “hurricane of hunger and a meltdown of the global food system.”

Eighteen African and less-developed countries import at least 50 percent of their wheat from either Ukraine or Russia, he said — and among them was the DRC. AFP

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