The African Red Sea Region does not produce enough food to feed its own population. Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland (Somalia) are each reliant on imports to make up for domestic production shortfalls. This presents unresolved challenges to the food security of the region.
The regional food system is currently in crisis because it is reliant on the international grain trade. The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has disrupted normal patterns of global food production and distribution, and, in turn, contributed to a rapid rise in prices in the African Red Sea Region.
Since the start of this crisis, an estimated 30 million people in the region have adopted stress-coping strategies, such as depleting assets to purchase grain at ever higher prices. For over 8 million people, these strategies have already failed. They have already liquidated their assets and are suffering from acute malnutrition. This crisis will likely continue through at least 2023.
The region became dependent on food imports over the course of the twentieth century. This dependence developed alongside structural poverty and widespread indebtedness.
Previously, people in the region almost exclusively ate local food that they either produced themselves or acquired through social relations. The traditional food system offered robust protection against supply shortfalls and ensured the minimum equitable distribution of food.
Tragically, this traditional food system collapsed at the end of the nineteenth century owing to an unprecedented ecological disaster – the first rinderpest epizootic (1887—1889). Rinderpest is a disease that kills 90 percent of immunologically naive infected cattle, such as those that pulled the ploughs in the region.
In the wake of this humanitarian disaster, states and private enterprise worked together to develop a new market-oriented food system. Governments modernized the transportation infrastructure. Merchants used the new means of transport to ship food from centres of production, both within the African Red Sea Region and abroad, to centres of unmet demand.
While solving some supply issues, the new system incentivized unsustainable practices. Already struggling cultivators commercialized their operations with debt, which they could not repay when promising harvests turned poor. Pastoralists who had lost everything to rinderpest turned drought pasture reserves into farms, robbing others of a resource crucial to herd maintenance in lean years.
The resulting destabilization of the rural economy pushed people into growing cities. Accelerating urbanization facilitated a change in diet. People began to consume larger quantities of foods that could not be produced locally in sufficient quantities.
States repeatedly tried to reverse the direction of trade by directing investments into development projects designed to increase production of in-demand foods. However, the failure of these projects further increased dependence on food imports.
Purchasing Insecurity: The African Red Sea Region and the Global Food Trade
Focusing on the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this report examines the historical origins of the Red Sea region’s structural food insecurity, linking the current crisis to the rinderpest epizootic (1887 – 1889); destabilization of the rural economy; and accelerating process of urbanization that subsequently transformed the lives of people living in the African Red Sea Region.