Abidjan — South of the Sahel, where drought, high food prices and other factors have pushed some 16 million into hunger, 320,000 people in Côte d'Ivoire are also grappling with food insecurity. A combination of forces is causing region-wide high prices for rice, but the government's efforts to make the staple food cheaper lack teeth and are proving difficult to impose.
In March 2012, locally grown rice cost 55 to 77 US cents per kg, 15 percent more than the five-year average. The price of imported rice was 68 to 92 US cents per kg, an increase of 30 to 50 percent, depending on where the market was located, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). The price of manioc - another staple food, also known as cassava - which is heavily consumed in western Côte d'Ivoire, has gone up by 70 percent.
Apart from high prices, Ivoirians also face food insecurity because hundreds of thousands were displaced in the election-related violence that overtook much of the country from 2010 to 2011, so they could not access their fields to plant crops.
Côte d'Ivoire produces roughly half of its rice requirement, making it heavily dependent on imported rice. Government statistics record some 837,000mt imported in 2010, and 819,061mt in 2009. WFP notes that over half the country's cereal diet consists of rice.
In early April 2012 the government tried to regulate prices by imposing guidelines: the most widely consumed rice should cost between 207 and 317 cfa (40 to 60 US cents) per kg; semi-luxe rice should be sold at 362 to 543 cfa (70 cents to $1.05); and fragrant rice at 710 to 760 cfa ($1.38 to $1.48) per kg.
But six weeks later these measures have not yet been implemented at most of the main markets in Abidjan, the commercial capital. "Every time the government announces a drop in food prices, when you go to the market two or three days later you see nothing has changed," said Françoise Etilé, a housewife from the Yopougon area of Abidjan.
In many markets rice prices have gone up even more. "Rice has become gold," said Etilé. "Already families are only eating one meal a day, and now we're heading towards one meal every two days."
Traders say they are not to blame for the high prices, which are experienced globally and dictated by international markets.
"Each time he [Minister of Commerce Dagobert Banzio] accuses of us of causing the rises, but this is not true," Salif N'diaye, a big rice vendor in Abidjan's Marcory neighbourhood, told IRIN. He closes his shop for several days each time a new price category is announced, "Otherwise my stock would disappear."
The government is now taking stronger measures and sending monitoring teams to markets to verify prices. "We have given three months for them [traders] to sort this out, to see prices significantly drop. Some show good willing but others still refuse - it's deplorable," Banzio told IRIN.
Ginaluca Ferrera, head of WFP in Cote d'Ivoire, welcomed the government's proactive approach. "The government does not want to wait for foreign aid - it is good that they are trying to help with macroeconomic measures," he said, but noted that discussions must be held with importers and traders so that compromise solutions can be found.
At the end of March the government reduced taxes on rice and tried to fight the racketeering associated with high prices. However, observers say not enough is being done to clamp down on the widespread criminality and banditry in the north and west, where ex-combatants or criminal gangs set up roadblocks to extract money from transporters or to loot their goods.
Food insecurity is highest in the north and west of Cote d'Ivoire, according to WFP assessments, with 260,000 people in the west moderately or severely food insecure, and 60,000 food insecure in the north. On average these families spend over half of their daily income on food.
Prices in the north also are coming under increased upward pressure because many of the available grains are being exported to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali, which are experiencing widespread food and displacement crises.
The latest nutrition survey, carried out in late 2011 - another one will take place in July 2012 - put the global acute malnutrition rate in the west at 4.7 percent, and in the rest of the country at 7.7 percent. However, chronic malnutrition in children younger than five years ranges from 35 percent in the south to 43.6 percent in the north, which WFP described as "quite alarming".
Because of these factors, WFP is extending its emergency food programmes until the end of October of 2012.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]