The Star of Africa: How and why russia is gaining a foothold on the Black Continent

The Star of Africa: How and why russia is gaining a foothold on the Black Continent

The banished country is trying to increase its influence in one of the world's largest markets

The Star of Africa: How and why russia is gaining a foothold on the Black Continent
Photo: depositphotos.com

Last week's top news on the global food market, which, unlike the extension of the grain corridor, went almost unnoticed in Ukraine, was the transfer of a free batch of russian mineral fertilisers to the African country Malawi.

Despite the fact that this transaction was carried out as a part of a humanitarian mission, it was decorated in the best, or rather worst, traditions of the russian empire: the russian anthem, the waving tricolour and the presence of the russian ambassador left no doubt to whom the small but diplomatically significant African country owed its salvation from famine.

The fertiliser delivery took place in the village of Mkwinda, where the cargo was received by Malawi's Minister of Agriculture Samuel Kawale.

"You came to our rescue when we needed you the most," the minister was quoted as saying in The Guardian, describing russia as a "true friend". The farmers stood up to show respect for their russian guests.

Malawian farmers were given 20,000 tonnes of fertilisers – nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium. However, it is only the first in a series of similar missions, with 260,000 tonnes of russian fertilisers donated to African countries most at risk of food insecurity.

Mind has looked into why Africa is so important to russia and how it could threaten Ukraine.

What kind of fertiliser is it, and why is russia giving it away for free?

Last year, the russian chemical company Uralchem-Uralkali donated 260,000 tonnes of fertiliser to African countries that were listed by the UN as having the highest food risk.

Dmitry Mazepin, Uralchem-Uralkali’s founder, is under personal sanctions because of ties to russian president vladimir putin. To minimise the negative impact of his status on the company's operations, he resigned as CEO and sold his controlling stake.

Uralchem's donation is being supplied and distributed through the UN World Food Programme (WFP), making the russian company an official partner of the humanitarian mission. UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed Uralchem's donation and thanked the governments that made it possible, including the russian government.

It is worth noting that it would have been unlikely that Uralchem would have been able to sell this shipment outside its humanitarian mission: although food and fertilisers are not formally subject to sanctions, potential buyers try to avoid any transactions with russian goods. Thus, last year, the fertiliser shipments were stuck in European docks. Even under UN auspices, it took almost five months for the fertiliser to reach Malawi.

To clarify: Is russia an official partner of the World Food Programme?

Yes, it is. The WFP works with russia, as well as with other UN member states, in the framework of humanitarian missions.

Is free fertiliser really a strong argument in Africa?

Yes, and it is difficult to overestimate its importance.

The government in Malawi and some other African countries subsidise farmers with fertiliser. Usually, it is about two or three bags per farm. It is not enough to provide a visible increase in production efficiency. Moreover, many farmers did not receive this material subsidy this year and were forced to grow crops without fertiliser.

In Malawi, 80% of the population are small-scale subsistence farmers. Without incentives, the crops grown will not be enough to feed the population, so the availability of NPK is literally a matter of life and death.

Ironically, it was russia's invasion of Ukraine that led to record prices on the global fertiliser market, making it unaffordable for buyers from African countries. At the end of 2022, the price of NPK finally started to decline. Still, it is twice as high as the pre-COVID level.

How important is the ethical component that prevents any deals with russia for African consumers?

Minimal, or rather around zero.

African farmers do not care about the origin of the resource that will ultimately allow their families to survive. Even in the spring of 2022, when Ukraine stopped grain export due to russian aggression and the blockade of the Black Sea, which led to a record increase in food prices, the leaders of the African Union came to russia and negotiated with vladimir putin on direct food supplies.

Why Malawi?

This country is landlocked, and the threat of famine is one of the highest. The purchasing power of the population has decreased due to the 25% devaluation of the national currency.

At the same time, Malawi is at the centre of a diplomatic struggle for influence on the African continent.

russian donation will help produce 800,000 tonnes of maize and feed 400,000 families.

Where will russia's humanitarian expansion go next?

Kenya is next on the list of recipients of Uralchem's fertilisers, with deliveries due in the coming months.

At the same time, Uralchem said it is studying the soil and crop composition to customise fertiliser batches and increase their efficiency.

What is the reason for interest in Africa?

It has two components.

The first is the market. The African market is of great interest to fertiliser and food producers, and to russian producers because of the geography of supply, which has narrowed after 24 February 2022.

The population of Africa today is more than 1.3 billion people, and experts estimate that it will double by 2050. It is one of the fastest growing markets in the world due to the fact that many countries on the continent have only recently developed a middle class living in cities. Investments in the energy and mining sectors, as well as agriculture, manufacturing, transport and infrastructure, are of the greatest interest.

For example, the russian company PhosAgro, which ranks first in Europe and third globally in the production of phosphate-based fertilisers, intends to double its export to Africa within five years. Over the past five years, the company's fertiliser exports to the Black Continent have quadrupled.

Egypt, which is the world's largest importer of wheat, is creating a cluster for food processing with the russian federation. There are also plans to set up a joint russian-Egyptian phytosanitary commission and switch to national currencies in settlements between the two countries.

russian exports to Africa are not limited by commodities. On the contrary, traditionally 'bonding' products, such as Alenka chocolate, are also supplied there.

The second component of the Black Continent's importance, though closely related to the market one, is geopolitical influence. It is difficult to determine it because of the fragmentation of African states, their large number and recurrent military conflicts. At the same time, russia, with its authoritarian regime, is a more understandable and logical partner for many African countries than European democracy.

And what about Ukraine?

Ukraine is trying to participate in the race to 'feed Africa'. The Grain from Ukraine programme provides grain shipments to the continent via the grain corridor from Odesa. The programme is overseen by the Head of the Presidential Office (PO).

Given the concern over russia's success – and the articles about the transfer of fertilisers by Uralchem that have made the rounds in the global media. Ukraine is not perceived as a benefactor in Africa. Former Malawian President Joyce Banda has recently become a grain ambassador to Ukraine, but the Ukrainian anthem has not yet been played in that country. Given that even the initial post on Andriy Yermak's Telegram channel informing about this programme contained several factual and arithmetical errors, the result is expected. In particular, it is unclear what consumption rate the head of the PO was based on when he wrote that the 27,000 tonnes of wheat that Ukraine supplied to Ethiopia would feed 100,000 people a year.

*Last year, Mind sent requests to clarify the details of the Grain from Ukraine programme to the WFP, the PO, and the Ministry of Infrastructure, but the first one advised to look for all the answers in Ukraine, while the other two recipients ignored the requests.

Is the struggle for Africa limited to free food distribution?

No, it is not.

One may laugh at the photo of the meeting between russian Foreign Minister sergey lavrov and a delegation of an African tribe in traditional costumes, but it does contribute to strengthening relations between the countries.

Last summer, russia hosted the second russia-Africa summit, and several more such events are scheduled for this year. The first summit took place in 2019.

What else do russia and Africa have in common?

If one analyses the cases at the International Criminal Court, 90% of the defendants are African leaders. vladimir putin has recently joined them.

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