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Africa banking on extension of grain export initiative from Ukraine and Russia

Tuesday May 16, 2023

The Ukraine-Russia grain deal is expiring in three days. Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Talks for a new round of the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) to allow grain and fertiliser to move from wartime Russia and Ukraine to Africa and other parts of the world are under way with the latest agreement expiring in three days.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2020, there have been two windows for grain to move via the Black Sea, the first one in July last year was a 120-day cycle. 

It was later replaced by a 60-day run in March this year, which is coming to an end. 

However, during negotiations for the second round, Russia complained that only 3% of the grain went to Africa. 

If this remained the case, Russia said it would send grain to Africa free of charge, a move widely seen as a geopolitical stunt.

Through the initiative, the World Food Programme (WFP) has chartered vessels to transport approximately 600 000 tonnes of grain in support of its humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Yemen, according to the most recent complete information from the aid agency.

If no deal is agreed on by 18 May, Russia's deputy Foreign Minister, Sergey Vershinin told Russian media that Moscow would pull out because its set conditions would not have been considered.

US ambassador Jim O’Brien said if Russia was to back down from the deal, that would be an outright selfish decision.

"It’s hard to see Russia’s incentive to terminate it, other than a desire to make more money from its grain exports. 

"At the same time, if Russia wishes to suspend its own termination – this is exactly what it did in the fall, and the initiative was able to provide a great deal of food to people during the time that the Russians suspended their own participation. 

"That would be the Russians’ own decision. But we would welcome seeing the BSGI get back up and functioning as it should so it can help global grain markets," he told journalists at a virtual press conference.

O’Brien added that Russia was not incapacitated by sanctions to provide grain to Africa and other parts of the world in need. 

"We do not sanction Russian food and fertiliser or transactions in food and fertiliser. We’ve made that clear with published general licences and in any informal conversation with any bank. The United Kingdom has followed also with a general licence, and the European Union has made clear that it’s acceptable to participate in the financing and payment for food and fertiliser.

"The measure is that Russia is in fact exporting at or above pre-war levels for foodstuffs," he said.

Russia's alleged increased exports are based on data from the UN supplied by importing countries since Moscow has become secretive with its figures.

With the war ongoing the real danger of Africa sourcing food at unaffordable prices remains. As such, the US said it was even prepared to help African buyers to source grain from Russia.

He added:

We’ve offered to assist any purchaser from the developing world who claims to have difficulty in contracting to buy Russian food. We did that in direct consultation, some hosted by ambassador Thomas-Greenfield at the UN, others with teams visiting in Africa with a regular set of virtual conversations.
Another big headache for world powers is the opening of the ammonia pipeline to allow Russia to export fertiliser.

Without the fertiliser, African countries will be faced with catastrophic crop loss further compromising food sufficiency on the continent. 

The US believes this is a decision that needs more of Russia's agreement than Ukraine.

"I don’t think it’s down to Ukraine. I think it’s down to Russia to make clear that this is important to it, and that it will make a deal based on moving that forward. As always, it takes two to say yes to anything, so I’d be hesitant to ascribe the difficulty here to just one of the parties.

"But we think that this would be a sustainable and a good amendment to the deal, and we hope the parties are able to see their way clear to agree on that," O’Brien said.

Turkish, Russian, Ukrainian and UN delegations in Istanbul are engaged in talks and there's a wish for the corridor to be opened for another two months.


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