The World’s Food Security is On the Line

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Everything is becoming more expensive, including the “poor man’s food.”

That’s a popular term for yams, here in Nigeria and around the world. This humble root tuber is cheap to grow and buy, but it’s packed with vitamins and minerals. Pound for pound and nutrient for nutrient, it’s one of the best bargains in sustenance. People around the world depend on it.

Over the last three months, however, I’ve watched the price of yams jump by 60 percent. They’re still a long way from becoming a “rich man’s food,” but it’s getting harder for low-income people to afford this important part of their diets.

The rising cost of yams is another example of how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected us all. As wheat prices soar, due to the collapse of exports from two of the world’s biggest wheat-producing countries, consumers and farmers have searched for alternatives. Many of them are turning to yams, and the increased demand has made it more expensive to buy the “poor man’s food.”

We’re paying a big price for violence—and the Secretary-General of the United Nations recently described our global plight.

The war, said Antonio Guterres on May 18, “threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity, followed by malnutrition, mass hunger, and famine, in a crisis that could last for years.”

That sounds bad, but an Egyptian official added this reality.

“This is something that we have to be very careful about,” said Finance Minister Mohamed Maait in an interview with the Financial Times. “We will feel shame if we find that millions of people are dying because of food insecurity.”

Here in Nigeria—where the national population of 206 million people is larger than that of Russia (144 million) and Ukraine (44 million) combined—we’ve lived with food insecurity brought on by violence for a long time.

Rotimi Williams checking rice plants.

I grow rice in my country’s Middle Belt, an area of rich agricultural land that produces a large amount of food. Yet it falls far short of its full potential because of banditry. Two years ago, bandits in Plateau, a state of Nigeria, tried to kidnap me five times. In May, terrorists murdered at least 50 farmers in the remote village of Rann. Last Sunday, shooters killed at least 50 people in a Catholic church, in a part of the country where these attacks have been rare, at least until now.

The kidnappings and killings in the region have become so dangerous that I can’t travel to the rice operations that I oversee. I’ve tried to address the problem through technology, even creating a mobile-phone app called Resolute 4.0 that allows local farmers to share information and issue alerts.

Yet the problems persist—and the violence in our rural areas is so lethal that it stops us from expanding and improving our farms. We know what we need to do, but we need access to our farms to achieve our goals.

When farmers struggle to farm, we all suffer. It’s true in Ukraine, and it’s true here.

Rotimi Williams

Challenges call for innovation and resilience, and I’ve responded to Nigeria’s conflict by expanding into more peaceful areas. We’ve started to build a business in Gambia, a small West African nation with excellent supplies of water and coastal access that makes the movement of goods easier. Gambians eat a huge amount of rice and we’re happy to grow it for them. We’re also pleased to work without interference from soldiers or thieves.

Ending the war between Russia and Ukraine will do a lot to improve food security. The world needs what they produce, from the agricultural inputs of fertilizer to agricultural outputs of wheat and sunflower oil. A return to normalcy will help everything, including the price of yams in Nigeria.

Yet we must remember that there are other wars. Nigeria’s troubles aren’t as deadly as what we’ve seen this year in Ukraine, but the conflict is intense and ongoing. It harms food security. It doesn’t receive as much attention as it should in part because sub-Saharan Africa also struggles for recognition, even though more than a billion people live here. The rest of the world seems to assume that violence here is normal.

We never should accept violence as normal, whether it’s the bombing of a steel factory in Mariupol or the slaughter of farmers in northern Nigeria.

Farmers can work in difficult conditions. We can also work around them. But we have our limits—and every season, the world’s food security is on the line.

Rotimi Williams
WRITTEN BY

Rotimi Williams

Former journalist. His farm is the 2nd largest commercial rice farm in Nigeria by land size; 45,000 hectares; grows rice for millers. He was challenged with instilling peaceful coexistence between his workers and a largely permanent Fulani community. This led to the creation of a tech startup designed to bridge the gap between volatile agricultural communities in rural Nigeria and security agencies.

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