A ship carrying wheat from Ukraine to the drought-stricken Horn of Africa docked on Tuesday, the United Nations said, the first to make the journey since the Russian invasion six months ago.
The vessel Brave Commander is carrying 23,000 tonnes of grain and will soon be followed by another carrying 7,000 tonnes.
The total shipment, which will be unloaded in Djibouti and transported to Ethiopia, is enough to feed 1.5 million people for a month.
That barely begins to alleviate the problems of Eastern Africa, where the United Nations’ World Food Programme says extreme weather, surging food prices and conflict mean 82 million people need food aid across nine countries – Burundi, Djiouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda.
“This shipment, the first of many we hope, will allow WFP to deliver this grain to 1.53 million people in Ethiopia and cover their needs for a month. It’s a start but we must continue to keep the food flowing to save lives across the region,” said Michael Dunford, the WFP director for Eastern Africa.
Officials hope the successful voyage will inspire private companies to begin shipping grain from Ukraine to Eastern Africa, where rising global food prices and difficulties raising donor funding have forced the United Nations to cut rations for refugees and displaced people.
Among them are 150,000 Eritrean refugees sheltering in Ethiopia, many of whom have been repeatedly displaced by conflict in the north, whose rations were cut in June to half the recommended amount of food.
“It’s not enough food. People are hungry,” said one Eritrean refugee in Alem-Wach Camp in northern Ethiopia.
“They explained to us the reasons, because of war in Ukraine,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “But it is especially hard because it is so cold now… the situation is so difficult.”
While the shipment will help people displaced by conflict, none of it will be sold commercially, meaning it will not lower food prices for ordinary Ethiopians.
Russia and Ukraine usually supply 90% of wheat imported in East Africa.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict sent fertiliser and food prices soaring as Russia blockaded Ukrainian ports. Energy prices have also surged following Western sanctions on Russia, a major energy exporter.
Last month, the United Nations and Turkey brokered a deal between Moscow and Kyiv to unblock three Black Sea ports, making it possible to send hundreds of thousands of tonnes of Ukrainian grain to buyers.
Ukraine is strengthening the humanitarian part of the grain initiative, officials said. On Tuesday, the bulk carrier Karteria departed, carrying 37,500 tonnes of wheat for Yemen, where 16 million people are hungry.