By Niyi Oyedeji and Sahar Mohammed
SOARING food prices in Yemen and Nigeria are predisposing more households to malnutrition as both countries face insurgency and weak local currency, Niyi Oyedeji and Sahar Mohammed report.
On a recent Thursday, 25-year-old Somaya Almakhlafy fought back tears after her 8-month-old daughter Raseal was discharged from Al-Suwaidi Hospital in Taiz in southern Yemen. They have spent two weeks in the therapeutic nutrition department in the hospital, where the daughter is being treated for severe acute malnutrition.
“Baby milk is very expensive,” Almakhlafy says, wiping the tears streaming down her cheeks with the back of her hand. “Sometimes I resort to buying sheep powdered unpacked milk to silence her hunger. I have not even eaten well to breastfeed her.”
She fears that her daughter will relapse because she cannot afford to give her nutritious food as they return home, where she lives with her father and brother after divorcing her husband.
During the early months of her pregnancy, her brother’s income kept them afloat. At that time, Almakhlafy could afford to buy legumes and make bread at home. But the food became unaffordable when the prices soared, causing her breast milk to suddenly stop.
Long before the coronavirus pandemic that has caused worldwide inflation, Yemen and Nigeria have been facing successive years of unabated rising food costs as both countries wage war against an insurgency that has displaced millions of people and weakened local currency and economy.
As far back as 10 years ago, families in Yemen spent 45 per cent of their income on food, but the figure has doubled due to war and the declining purchasing power of the local currency, according to a study published in 2019 by the Syrian Journal of Research.
According to a report by the World Bank, in Nigeria, rising food prices could push an additional six million people into poverty. “The share of Nigerians living below the national poverty line could have increased from 40.1 per cent to 42.8 per cent, due to the food price inflation witnessed between June 2020 and June 2021,” the report states.
Although Inflation has risen worldwide as the global economy reels from the coronavirus pandemic, the inflation in Nigeria has risen to about 16 per cent while that of Yemen is 40 per cent. Inflation in Yemen grew from 8.16 per cent in 2014 to 40.75 per cent in 2021, according to Statista, while inflation in Nigeria grew from 8.05 in 2014 to 16.91 per cent in 2021.
The consequent soaring food prices are putting nutritious meals beyond the reach of low-income households in both countries. Households that were once comfortable are now on the edge of starvation, like 40-year-old Asmau Bala, a farm labourer and a single mother of six children in the Dundaye community in Nigeria’s northwestern state Sokoto State.
The nursing mother, whose daily income is about N500 ($1.2), says the hike in the price of basic commodities has forced her to cut down her family’s meal intake.
“Before now, we used to buy one mudu of rice for N700 ($1.7) or N800 ($1.9), but it is now being sold for N1,200 ($2.9),” she says. “We only eat once or twice a day. Most times we take our food without meat or fish.”
Bala’s youngest daughter Aisha who is 2-year-old looks malnourished. “There is this particular baby milk I used to buy at the rate of N1000 ($2.4) when Aisha’s siblings were still very young but to my surprise, they now sell it for N3000 ($7.3),” Asmau says, adding that she resorted to feeding her daughter with corn pap without milk.
About 4,378 kilometres away, 33-year-old Saed Shaef, a construction worker from Jabal Habshi in Taiz in southern Yemen, with an average daily income of 7000 Rials (approximately $7), now finds it difficult to feed his family as the inflation has risen faster than his earning.
A cartoon of infant milk now costs him about 70 per cent of his income, which he says was cheaper when his twins were conceived. As the twins Wesal and Lila are four months away from their second birthday, they are visibly malnourished.
The twins’ mother, Hind says her situation is dire because she has been unable to produce enough breast milk for her babies. “Despite my husband’s unstable income, I could breastfeed my older children, and none of them experienced malnutrition,” she says.
Children and women bear the brunt
Back in 2016, the cost of a bag of 50kg of rice, a staple food in Nigeria, was N13,000 ($31.5), but it is now selling for N31,000 ($75.2).
The staple food in Yemen, like a bag of white flour (50 KG), was 21,000 Rials ($21) by the end of 2020, and now it has reached 50,000 ($50).
“Now that there’s an increase in prices of food, most middle income families now manoeuvre to meet their nutritional needs,” says Dr Olusola Malomo, assistant chief dietician at Ajeromi General Hospital in Lagos, Nigeria.
“They also make choices that are not safe,” he continues. “For example, in the case of tomatoes, you now see many families going to the market to purchase rotten tomatoes and these rotten tomatoes are high in mycotoxins which are carcinogenic. It could even predispose them to food poisoning.”
The soaring food prices have forced low-income families in Nigeria and Yemen to cut back on food they previously afforded, with their children now increasingly facing malnutrition.
Such is the case of 7-year-old Abdullahi Umaru in Dundaye community in Sokoto State in northwestern Nigeria, who eats mostly starchy foods.
“I’ve only been given tuwo, rice or fura,” says Umaru, who is stunted and has dropped out of school.
Due to the prevalence of the food crisis in Nigeria, the Global Hunger Index in 2021 ranked the country 103 out of 116 countries. With a score of 28.3, GHI concluded that Nigeria has a serious hunger level.
Amid inflation, insecurity, and other challenges, the wave of hunger ravaging north-eastern Nigeria has spread to other regions of the country, particularly in the northwest, where 30-year-old Suwaiba Shahaba, a mother of five in Dundaye says the current price of foodstuff has significantly affected her family’s food consumption.
“In the past, we ate three times a day, but right now with the increase in the price of everything, we only manage to eat once or twice a day,” Shahaba says, adding that she does not care about nutrition but the availability of any food.
In Yemen, the situation is more critical, where Oxfam stated that two-thirds of Yemenis do not even know where their next meal would come from. Unlike the insecurity ravaging northeastern and northwestern Nigeria, a protracted conflict that started in 2015, combined with the recent surge in the country’s inflation rate, is pushing millions towards famine in Yemen.
Thirty-eight-year-old Aref Ali, a father of four girls, has reduced the quantity of wheat he purchases for his family by half due to cost. The price of 50kg of flour currently exceeds his monthly salary.
His family depends on his 30,000 Rials ($30) monthly income, which he earns from volunteering to teach in one of the schools in Ghrafe community. Ali says his salary was enough to feed the family before the local currency lost much of its value.
“I could buy fruits almost on a daily basis,” Ali says. “Fish and chicken on the weekends, but our diet has now been severely affected in recent years. It reached its peak last year and most of what we eat now are cereals and bread.”
Ali’s youngest 1-year-old daughter Marasil has been the hardest hit in the family’s sudden food insecurity; she faces severe malnutrition that threatens her life.
“I have not been able to take Marasil to one of the specialised centres where they treat malnutrition in the city of Taiz,” Ali says. The high price of oil has led to the increased cost of transportation to reach there. It will cost me 50,000 Rials ($50) for round trips and the expenses that I will incur, which exceeds what I earn as salary.”
An economist, Hisham Al-Sarmi, says that the factors responsible for the soaring prices of goods and services in Yemen could be attributed to several factors, most notably the continuous fluctuations in the exchange rate of the Rials against foreign currencies and the high prices of oil derivatives that increase the costs of transporting goods.
According to Al-Sarmi, to control inflation, the government needs to stabilise the price of goods and support the central bank to control currency deterioration. “A number of provinces that distribute loaves of bread or food basket in addition to the humanitarian initiatives funded by the Yemeni communities in the diaspora also needs to be supported,” he adds.
Growing malnutrition with few alternatives
According to Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2021, Yemen and Nigeria are among the top 20 countries with the highest malnutrition rate. While Yemen is the second country on the list with 45.1, Nigeria ranks 13 with a 28.3 malnutrition rate.
The WFP points out that with 1.3 million pregnant or breastfeeding women and 2.2 million children under five suffering from acute malnutrition in Yemen, the country remains among the highest countries with the burden.
“A recent survey has revealed that almost one-third of families in Yemen have gaps in their diets, and hardly ever consume foods, like vegetables, fruit, dairy products or meat,” WFP says.
Like Yemen, Nigeria is also facing an exceptional burden of malnutrition, where the underlying causes have been identified as poverty and a high cost of living. Nigeria has the second-highest burden of malnourished children in the world, according to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
According to the 2018 Nigeria Demography and Health Survey, malnutrition is highly concentrated in the Northern part of Nigeria, with North-west alone accounting for 57 per cent of the total malnutrition cases in the country.
Amal Al-Mujahid, a nutritionist based in Yemen, says that some diseases that affect children, particularly fever, infections, bacterial infections, dyspepsia and digestive problems that often lead a child to malnutrition, come as a result of resorting to cheap, non-sterile alternatives.
Al-Mujahid advised parents to desist from giving their children unpackaged powdered milk because it is unhealthy for children.
But 40-year-old Zuwaira Gafar, a Nigerian petty trader and mother of eight children, says she does not mind the food she offers her children, adding that her youngest child who is just a year old, is fed mostly corn paste while the rest of the family settles for cassava on most days.
“Things were better last year compared to this year,” she says. “Now we are just enduring the hardship and we only eat two times, and for some days, we don’t even have any at all.”
In 2018, Nigeria launched an initiative called collateral-free loan scheme, targeted at supporting two million petty traders like Gafar. The scheme was designed to offer a minimum of N30,000 ($72) to the petty traders to cushion the effect of inflation on the poorest people in the country, where nearly 50 per cent of the population is living in extreme poverty.
In addition, Nigeria launched a conditional cash transfer programme to relieve poor women in the country, but a recent investigation revealed that the programmes had been marred in corruption as most of the money has been diverted by public officials.
“I only used to hear of these initiatives but I have never benefited from any of them,” Gafar says.
James Oloyede, director of Nutrition Services and Health Education at the Osun State Primary Health Care Development Board in Nigeria, says that the rising prices of food items in the country are bound to have short and long-term effects on household food security.
Oloyede advises Nigerians to grow vegetables around their homes to buffer malnutrition, adding that “the government can also increase social protection for the populace so the average Nigerian can easily afford to purchase their basic nutritional needs without expending all their resources.’’
Dr Olusola Malomo, the assistant chief dietician at Ajeromi General Hospital in Lagos, agrees that home gardening will help to reduce malnutrition. “Natural or artificial methods of gardening can help families grow vegetables that are rich in essential vitamins for growth and wellness, supplementing their nutritional requirements,” he says.
In Yemen and Nigeria, the governments and non-governmental organisations have initiated various programmes to address inflation and malnutrition, but parents and critics say the measures have been inadequate to address the alarming rate of malnutrition, describing most of the interventions as a drop in the ocean.
“We have a mobile clinic that visits the village from time to time to treat our children, but we need a permanent clinic here so the children don’t relapse again, ” says Hind Shaef, a Yemeni mother whose twins are malnourished.
This story was supported by a Global Nutrition and Food Security Reporting Fellowship from the International Center for Journalists and the Eleanor Crook Foundation.