Story 11: When global food price increases and local economic vulnerability meet: the view from Hawassa, Ethiopia

Story 11: When global food price increases and local economic vulnerability meet: the view from Hawassa, Ethiopia

Hawassa, Ethiopia, 13 February 2023 - 

Read our eleventh story in the series on The Food Crisis: What's Happening, a collection of work on the current events and the impact communities are seeing on a global scale. 

The Food Crisis is affecting everyone socially, economically and nutritionally. Stella Nordhagen, Genet Gebremedhin, and Smret Hagos write about the pressure market vendors in Hawassa, Ethiopia are facing.

Working as a vendor in the traditional, open-air food market of Hawassa, Ethiopia has never been particularly easy. An average day entails carrying heavy loads of vegetables under a hot sun, serving a steady stream of impatient customers amid the cacophony of a busy market, scrambling to grab spilled goods when knocked over by passers-by, and dealing with the rainy-season mud that makes the narrow market alleys near impassable. But it has been even more difficult lately. “People don’t buy products when they are expensive,” explains one woman vegetable vendor, “[so we will] not be able to sell it quickly, and it stays for maybe four days, which will cause it to wither easily, and that would be a loss.”

This lakeside city in the country's Great Rift Valley is far from the frontlines in the Russia-Ukraine war. Even so, the ripple effects of that conflict can still be felt here, as pressure on international supplies and prices of key food commodities and inputs reverberates through local markets. In Ethiopia, the pressures of rising international prices —particularly for cooking oil, fuel, and fertiliser—interact with two additional forces limiting food supply and reducing incomes: a brutal conflict in the country's northern Tigray region and a historic four-season-long drought in the country's south. The result is food inflation reaching as high as 43% year-on-year in May, according to Ethiopia's Central Statistical Agency. Locals report large price increases for cooking oil, meat, dairy, grains (including tef, a main local staple), and legumes such as lentils—central to traditional Ethiopian dishes. 

Though the pace of price increases has let up slightly since then (33% year-on-year as of August), some vendors are still feeling the pressure and seeing it impact their customers. While some, often wealthier, consumers describe the price increases as frustrating but having little impact on their shopping behaviour, others are not so lucky: “It costs us more if we buy a lot of types of food items,” one 23-year-old woman explained, “and that is why we prefer to buy food items that we can just boil and eat… we buy only one type of food and cook it so that our expenses do not increase by buying many types of food.” Over time, such changes could harm diet quality and nutrition—a worrying prospect in a region that already faces high levels of malnutrition, with about a quarter of the population undernourished and many people consuming nutritious foods like vegetables and dairy at far below the levels recommended for a healthy diet. 

Price pressures also impact people's quality of life: “When living costs escalate,” one 32-year-old single woman shopping the market explains, “you compromise many things. You do not invite guests over. You do not go out to relax, and so on. So, I have limited my friends. I've limited going out… My focus is on limiting.” A 37-year-old male shopper, who noted that he no longer bought meat or fish, agreed on the price increases being restrictive: “There are food items in the market [for which] I do not even get the chance to taste them.… To purchase such items means to spend weeks’ worth of groceries budget on a meal…. necessary food items have become a luxury.” When customers reduce their food purchases, that lower demand affects vendors. With exceptions, food market vendors are often among the poorer members of the local population and have thin margins for buffering a drop in income. A difference of only a few customers a day can have a real impact on vendors’ ability to make ends meet. As one 19-year-old woman selling vegetables described, “It has affected us enormously. Our family survives with the income from the shop. I am a student. My mom handles the shop while my father works [casual] labour jobs. There are three more children at home… There are school tuition fees. And the increase in the price of the items we sell has affected everyone in the family.”

Over time, such changes could harm diet quality and nutrition—a worrying prospect in a region that already faces high levels of malnutrition

Local markets like Hawassa's are critical not only to the food security and nutrition of millions, but also to the livelihoods and families of vendors who work within them. While the people of this market in Hawassa are creative and resilient—often finding ways to adapt to challenges and take them in stride—the recent global food price crisis has not made this easy. It is unlikely to be an isolated incident: Ethiopia's situation, which is considerably worse in the country's south, west, and north, is representative of the confluence of conflict and climate shocks, both local and global, that is already distressingly common across the Global South. These challenges are expected to only increase amid ongoing climate change.

To reduce these pressures in the short term, global and country-level efforts are needed to curtail food price increases and buffer their effects on the most vulnerable. In the long term, it will be essential to build resilience of local and global markets to the shocks that cause price increases—and to work to prevent those shocks in the first place. 

Read more about our ongoing series on The Food Crisis: What's Happening
DISCLAIMER: The quotations presented here are verbatim translations from interviewed consumers in Hawassa's main market, but their names have been anonymized in line with the informed consent procedures of the study through which the interviews were conducted. The study was made possible through support provided by Feed The Future through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), under the terms of the EatSafe Cooperative Agreement No. 7200AA19CA00010. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.