Africa, Development & Aid, Food and Agriculture, Headlines

SOMALIA: Rising Food Prices Add to Woes

Abdurrahman Warsameh

MOGADISHU, Jun 4 2008 (IPS) - Ali Yusuf is a porter at Mogadishu's main Bakara market. He works as much as 12 hours a day, ferrying people's shopping from the market to their homes to earn a living and support his family of eight. But soaring food prices are hitting him hard.

Moneychangers in Hargeisa, Somaliland: counterfeit money has exacerbated the crisis. Credit: Cyrille le Déaut

Moneychangers in Hargeisa, Somaliland: counterfeit money has exacerbated the crisis. Credit: Cyrille le Déaut

"I used to earn enough to feed my family, but now no matter how hard I work I am unable to put enough food on the family table," said Yusuf, as he prepared to load his hand cart with 250 kg of goods for a customer. "I will need to carry dozens of loads like this to distant places, through dangerous streets in the city. But I can't get enough to go through the day," Yusuf explains.

Thousands of Somalis like Yusuf are feeling the pinch of rising food prices. Last month, people took to the streets in many parts of the war-torn Horn of African nation, including the restive Somali capital of Mogadishu. The demonstration turned violent as protesters threw stones and burned tires in the streets of the capital. Somali government security forces shot and killed two as they tried to disperse the crowds.

In response to the protests, Nur Hassan Hussein, the prime minister of the country's transitional government, ordered the suspension of exports of all foodstuffs from the country; the measure had little visible effect, since Somalia produces very little food for export and imports most of its food.

The global rise in the price of staple foods has triggered protests across Africa, including in Egypt, Cameroon, Senegal, and South Africa. In Somalia, things are made worse by nearly two decades of civil strife.

"This problem of rising food prices is now a global phenomenon but our local problems are further complicating things for us," says Mohamed Elmi, a local economist. "Things like the prolonged instability in the country, uncontrolled printing of fake notes, the steadily rising price of fuel, and the widespread piracy on Somali waters that scares away ships carrying food imports and aid are all at play here."

Somalia's recent inflation begins with the rapid rise in the price of oil. Transport costs have skyrocketed, with a knock-on effect in all spheres of life.

Widespread piracy along the Somali coast – the longest in Africa – is also a factor. Both commercial and humanitarian cargoes have been hijacked for ransom as the ships approached the Somali territorial waters. According to the International Maritime Organization, 25 ships were hijacked in Somali coastal waters last year. Ten have already been hijacked or attacked so far this year, the latest being three ships now being held off Somali coast by pirates.

The risk of attack by pirates has made chartering ships for delivery of food and other goods to Somalia twice as expensive, according to local Somali importers.

The printing of counterfeit bank notes of the local currency, the Somali shilling, has worsened already runaway inflation in the country and further devalued the shilling against the US dollar. Last year, one US dollar was worth approximately 20,000 Somali shillings, but this rate jumped to nearly 33,000 to dollar in May this year, following the revelation that billions of shillings' worth of fake banknotes were being printed on sophisticated printing machines in the semi-autonomous northeastern region of Puntland.

The 1000-shilling Somali bank note is the largest – indeed the only surviving – denomination of the Somali national currency. The notes have been in circulation for nearly two decades since the government of Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. The lesser denominations – coins and notes alike – have all fallen out of use as traders rejected them as too worn out to be trusted.

However, food imports are taxed by the Somali government in U.S. dollars and businesses also price foodstuffs and other goods in hard currency. The devaluation of the shilling against the dollar immediately translates into serious pain in a family's budget.

At Mogadishu's main Bakara market, a 50 kilogramme bag of rice now costs $50, up from about $30 last year. The prices of flour and sugar have also risen considerably – 50 kg of flour hovers around $45, 20 litres of cooking oil costs more than $30. This is prohibitively expensive for most Somalis.

"I earn around 100,000 Somali shillings on my best days, but that is never enough for even one meal for my family of eight," complains Yusuf. "Imagine: one kilo of rice is more than 35,000 Somali shillings, or a kilo of flour is more than 30,000, I don't know where we are heading".

The people in the war-torn Horn of African nation of Somalia, where remittances from relatives abroad are the main source of income, are now trying to cope with the food crisis in their own way: making do with one, or two meals a day instead of the usual three.

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