For Nashirata* (surname withheld), caregiver to her husband and three children, jollof rice, a favorite West African food, often saves lives.
Jobs are hard to find in Accra, Ghana where she lives, so her high school teaching job is available until her master’s degree in public health opens doors to something better. And with his meager salary, jollof rice – a simple meal of rice cooked with spicy tomatoes and peppers, seasoning and fish or meat – is often a cheap option for his family.
But now cooking is more expensive.
On the eve of May Day, Nashirata’s pot of jollof rice costs 80 Ghanaian cedis ($7.40), almost double the usual cost. Still, it’s one of the “simplest meals” he’s ever made, he says, because he can’t afford meat and other condiments at their current prices.
“When I look at what I prepared yesterday,” Nashirata told Al Jazeera, “I wanted to add other ingredients. But what we’ve experienced, we never get what we want. You can only do if what do you have.”
Elsewhere in West Africa, in Lagos, the Nigerian commercial capital, the price of restocking monthly groceries has risen from approximately 40,000 naira last year ($86.80) to 80,000 naira ($173.61) today for to Esther Louise, mother of four children.
And these days when he cooks jollof rice, he replaces the turkey – which goes from 3,500 naira ($7.60) per kilo to 5,000 naira ($10.85) – with the cheaper Titus fish. He now spends about 8,000 naira ($17.36) to make a pot of rice, 30 percent from 5,500 naira ($11.94) in April.
As of 2020, people across West Africa face rising food inflation, as popular foods become unaffordable for low-income households.
According to the Ghana Statistical Service, food inflation up to March stood at 50.8 percent. In Nigeria and Senegal, the rates are smaller, at 24.61 percent and 11.90 percent, respectively.
In crisis-hit Burkina Faso, food prices have also risen by 30 percent this year, according to the International Rescue Committee. In Mali, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) projects severe food insecurity is expected to increase by 30 percent between June and August.
For low-income households across the region, these numbers translate into reduced food security, even as people’s incomes generally remain the same.
“We all know those prices [of commodities] in fact, closing astronomically compared to last year. You cannot even compare the two,” said Nashirata.
A recent survey by SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based geopolitical consultancy, examined the rising cost of cooking a pot of jollof rice for an average family of five in several markets in parts of Nigeria and Ghana.
In 14 markets surveyed across Nigeria, the price rose between 2.9 percent and 14.7 percent, rising to 13,150 naira ($28.54) between the third quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2023. Meanwhile, the monthly minimum wage in Nigeria remains at 33,000 naira ($71.61) .
In Ghana, where the monthly minimum wage is 401.76 cedis ($37.18), a pot of jollof rice costs 287.5 cedis ($26.61), 294.5 cedis ($27.26) and 274 cedis ($25.36) in the first three months in Accra and 268 cedis ($24.8 ), 278 cedis ($25.73) and 274 cedis ($25.36) in Kumasi, respectively.
“The index highlights the weakness of regional economies,” said Ikemesit Effiong, head of research at SBM Intelligence.
And while underdeveloped agricultural and farming systems and inadequate policy support have long been recognized as causes of price inequality, experts say the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war also contributed to the increase in food prices.
Like most of the African continent, West African countries are highly dependent on grains, wheat, flour and, to a lesser degree, fertilizers from the Black Sea region, a key geopolitical axis that includes Russia and Ukraine.
According to a joint study in 2022 by the Economic Community of West African States, the UN World Food Program and FAO, almost half of the wheat flour imported into West Africa comes from Russia and Ukraine.
“The way West African economies are structured, they are largely import-driven,” said Daniel Anim, chief economist at the Accra-based Policy Initiative for Economic Development.[It is] making it very difficult for the average citizen within the region to afford goods and services.
“The disposable income of the citizens is reduced due to the effect of the inflationary rate, and this affects the standard of living of the citizens until it has an effect on the nutritional value of the citizens, which always affects the productivity,” he added.
Beyond global dynamics, the ongoing political, economic and climate crisis is also affecting regional economies.
Mali and Burkina Faso have experienced violence by armed rebels over the years, as well as several coups since 2020. During that time, there have also been attempted coups in Niger, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau as discontent with Addressing uncertainty continues and as the cost of living continues to rise.
Last year, severe flooding wiped out thousands of farms, killed more than 600 people and displaced 1.4 million others across Nigeria’s food-producing states – after years of armed attacks against farmers by armed groups in the region. A botched currency swap earlier this year led to more inflation and hurt small and medium businesses, according to the World Bank.
Ghana is in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a $3bn dollar bailout. And as of December 2022, Nigeria’s total debt stock stands at $103.11bn.
The rising debt stock has also hampered economic growth in strong economies such as Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal. By 2022, according to the International Monetary Fund, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire are reported to have a debt-to-GDP ratio of 77 percent and 56 percent, respectively.
“If you take the West African subregion as an economic bloc over the years, it appears that the focus has been on solving political issues against economic issues outlined in various protocols and documents that aimed at boosting the respective economies of the subregion,” Anim told Al Jazeera.
‘You need management’
Experts say that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which was designed to facilitate the movement of goods across the continent but has not yet launched, will help stop the decline in food supply and the rise in prices.
“The solution is around the nature of access – access to capital on the one hand and access to infrastructure and markets,” Akinyinka Akintunde, president of Lagos-based commodities exchange AFEX, told Al Jazeera. “When the land and the finances are not available with the land insurgency and [there is ] there is no access to finance because there is no subsidy in place because the government does not play the role or there is no infrastructure to access it, then there are high prices.
“Without a seamless mechanism to obtain products at fair, transparent prices, the project is dead on arrival because market access has many dynamics in it.”
For regular people like Nashirata, having daily food cost more than their income is a bitter experience. “Nowadays,” he said, “you don’t just go out and say you want to buy what you want, go home and prepare food for your family. You have to take charge. “