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Rising food prices - feeling the pinch

Several countries are experiencing riots and protests over the global phenomenon of rising food prices. The urban poor in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, are among those suffering badly.

Ethiopia’s most famous food – ingeera – is eaten by rich and poor alike. The grey spongy-like flat bread, eaten with a variety of sauces, forms part of the staple diet but can also be found in the best Ethiopian restaurants anywhere in the world.

It is made from “teff”, the very fine white grain indigenous to the Horn of Africa. In the past year, teff has doubled in price. In 2007, teff was 300 birr a quintal (about 100 kilos). In 2008, it’s 650 birr (14 birr is equivalent to one euro).

Prices doubled

But the poor can’t afford to buy the grain, mill it and bake it. So they buy injeera ready-made – even if in the long run that is far less economical. Now, a piece of ingeera costs one birr – twice what it was last year. “It’s very expensive,” says retired Colonel Alemayhu, head of one of the city’s consumer co-ops, which is supported by Concern Worldwide’s main partner organisation in the city. Doubly so for a poverty-stricken family who have to survive on the equivalent of a dollar a day or less. “The community doesn’t believe the price of teff will come down in the coming years. People don’t expect supply to be able to meet the growing demand for food either,” he says.

The jump in the cost of teff and injeera is not an isolated example. Cooking oil has risen by about a third since last year. Today, a litre costs 27 birr. Sorghum has doubled in price to four birr a kilo. These price hikes are causing severe hardship for the urban poor. During the past six months, the Ethiopian Government has been distributing maize to the poorest of the poor in a bid to lessen the impact of rising food prices. But it is not enough to counteract the worst effects.

Female headed households 

Concern’s partner in Addis is trying to help alleviate the effects through its urban livelihoods programmes. MCDP helps a dozen local organisations. Between them, they assist almost 2,500 people directly and 16,000 indirectly. Many of the beneficiaries are women who support their households without the help of a husband or male relative. Concern provides training to help MCDP work with the local organisations more effectively.

“Copying with inflation is a real achievement,” says Fasil Tsegaye of MCDP. But many fear that the reality of rising prices is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Giving hope

In Kera suburb, Colonel Alemayhu’s consumer co-op, formed by two of the local organisations supported by Fasil and his colleagues, sells basic commodities to its members at reduced prices. The co-op buys grain in bulk – ideally direct from farmers on the outskirts of Addis. As well as teff, the recently-formed co-op sells other basic staples like maize, chickpea, sugar, barley. Colonel Alemayhu says it has given its members hope. But they are only getting limited supply from producers. “If we can get more supplies, we can keep the prices low and help people living in poverty,” he says.

The co-op is making a tangible difference. “One quintal of teff costs 650 birr from the merchants,” says the Colonel. “We can sell it at 625 birr. That is a meaningful contribution. 25 birr makes a big difference. As well as that, the community can get the teff right here in their community so that saves them transport costs. And they know the teff is of high quality. In the markets, it will be mixed with rubbish.”

But the co-op is facing the same problem as the community. They are being forced to buy from merchants. Farmers close to the capital have more bargaining power than their rural counterparts. They are in a better position to demand higher prices for their wares because they know that the huge urban population is depending on them. Conservative estimates put the population of Addis at four million. Many believe it is much higher than that. Teff is not produced commercially. It is produced by small farmers, vulnerable to the rains. Many are turning to cash crops such as coffee.

“There is a sense of frustration,” says Concern’s Endanchiyelem Mekonnen. “You see people like those in the co-op making an effort to surmount a problem. Then they are hampered by something outside their control like rising food prices.”