GUINEA: Food prices some of highest in region
DAKAR, 27 June 2008 (IRIN) - Food price hikes have hit Guinea’s capital Conakry harder than many others in West Africa according to the World Food Programme (WFP), while an export ban is preventing rural populations from benefiting from high global market prices, leading to fears that mounting food insecurity could lead to instability.
Rice prices in Conakry of US$0.95 per kg are higher than in many other West African capitals – including Dakar where it costs US$0.77 per kg and Monrovia where it is US$0.64. Up to a third of Guineans rely on imported rice and the number shoots up in the lean season from June to September.
“With the rising cost of living I think anything could happen at any time… it could be a vital factor in destabilising our country,” Ramata Sagno, a public services official, told IRIN.
According to Jean-Martin Bauer, a food market specialist at WFP in Dakar, there is more evidence of a problem in towns though the organisation is also concerned about some rural zones.
The latest government poverty reduction strategy notes just over a third of Guineans have trouble feeding themselves. Urban poor
In Conakry’s more impoverished areas families spend up to 62 percent of their income on food according to the non-governmental organisation Helen Keller International.
These estimates were made before fuel prices rose by 60 percent in April 2008
, which also cost some Guineans the majority of their income. A civil servant in the housing ministry told IRIN on a salary of US$67 per month he spends US$73 on fuel, which has stopped him from going into work regularly.
“Each time you hear about cost of living leaders say it is a global crisis, but this is an argument people won’t buy for long because they are hungry… and when stomachs are empty people will do anything to improve their lot,” Abdullahi Soumaouré, an official in the urban ministry, told IRIN.
Political instability and riots over cost of living and governance issues have been rife in the capital, Conakry in recent years. Most recently in May and June 2008 clashes between military factions, and between the military and police lead to hundreds of injuries and several deaths. Both groups counted among their demands a call for higher rice subsidies. Why prices so high
A number of internal factors have contributed to sharp food price rises in Guinea, according to WFP. One is the rice imports market that is dominated by a few players which “does not create the conditions for the healthy competition that would lower prices,” said Bauer.
Guinea has a relatively inefficient port system, which makes it more expensive to ship a container of rice from Asia to Conakry than to other West African capitals, and fuel prices have further increased freight costs.
And the Guinean Franc has not enjoyed the relative protection of the West African CFA which is pegged to the euro, and has experienced high inflation in 2008, making it more expensive for Guinean consumers and the government to purchase food.
“Inflation is reducing the government’s financial reserves. It has seriously affected our state budgets,” said Emmanuel Sossonadourno, an adviser in the economics ministry. Government measures
The government set up an emergency committee to address the crisis though it has been slow to meet partly because of the recent instability in the capital and the changeover of power as the new Prime Minister Tidiane Soaré set about forming a new government
The agriculture ministry is trying to set up emergency rice stocks, and has cut taxes on staple foods. It also developed a growth plan to reduce the country’s import dependence, launching a donor appeal in May.
But Bauer estimates Guinea will see most of the benefits of boosted production in 2009 not 2008 as there was little time to plan a response between the price hikes in the spring and the beginning of the lean season in June. Export ban “bad news”
The government has also issued an export ban as of 31 December 2007 on all agricultural products, which is intended to keep food stocks inside the country and to prevent prices from spiralling further out of control.
But according to WFP’s Bauer, Guineans exported marginal amounts of rice before the export ban, so rather than keeping rice in the country the ban has instead hit Guinea’s vegetable and fruit sellers, who are “at risk of losing their regional market share.”
Rural producers who flout the ban face more expensive transport options, cutting their profit margins.
“For smallholders growing cash crops this can be very bad news in terms of their livelihoods and income,” Bauer told IRIN.
The ban is also inconsistently applied – residents of the capital report they still see foreign fishing trawlers working just off the country’s coast. And one international donor said the export ban was never official in the first place leaving many in a state of confusion.
He told IRIN "We do not encourage these kinds of controls on the economy. It affects vulnerable groups and rural communities the most."
But Emmanuel Sossonadourno, an adviser in the economics ministry, defends the ban. “People were abusing our subsidy system buy buying products cheaply and selling them for more across borders so we had to apply a ban.” Urban response
Many agencies, including the World Food Programme, are gearing up to provide food aid for the most vulnerable but they need to do so quickly, says Bauer, since the lean season is already underway.
WFP also faces the challenge of running a large-scale urban response in a city prone to violence. Conakry has the right conditions for cash rather than food distributions but instability could complicate this. “Instability as we have seen in the recent fighting between the police and the army
could be a concern with an urban intervention. We just have to try to ensure we deliver assistance to those who need it, without making the situation any worse.”
In the meantime the residents of Conakry are not hopeful. “I am scared for Guinea and for myself”, said Soumaouré. “I think Guineans may be ready to go to the streets to demand better living conditions. We are suffering but we no longer know who to complain to.”