Today her family struggles to keep up. The Covid-19 pandemic, which first hit South Africa in early 2020, brought harsh lockdowns, record unemployment and economic disruption as global supply chains shut down. Russia’s war in Ukraine this year has pushed up fuel prices and the cost of everyday commodities like wheat, barley and sunflower oil.
Stories like Koen’s are happening around the world, but the crisis is particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where inflation is at its highest since the 2008 global financial crisis, according to the International Monetary Fund. Families already on the brink are sliding further into poverty, while many who had joined the region’s fast-growing middle class are falling behind.
The savings that Koen has slowly built up over the years are dwindling. Her husband, who works in the auto industry, has not received a pay rise since the pandemic began. The earnings from his second job, which repairs cars at the weekend, were once used to finance family trips and vacations; now they are spent on food.
“We’re pushing through right now,” Koen said, “hoping we’ll be able to breathe again soon.”
She cooks less to conserve electricity—electricity bills are up 14 percent year-on-year—and she tries to make enough food to last several days each time. With petrol prices in South Africa up almost 30 percent year-on-year, Koen has swapped her car for a smaller, more fuel-efficient model and drives twice a week off-peak when she goes to the office.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Africans experienced unprecedented upward mobility. According to estimates by the African Development Bank, by 2011 the continent’s middle class had tripled in three decades to 313 million people, or more than 34 percent of the population at the time. Years of strong economic growth allowed many people to make the transition from traditional farming to more stable, paying jobs.
From South Africa to West Africa, that stability is now threatened by the lingering effects of a global health crisis and runaway inflation.
Senegal had to close its borders during the pandemic and suffered massive losses in tourism revenue. The exploration of new oil and gas fields, which should contribute to the economic future of the country, has been delayed.
In the capital, Dakar, Aminata Gueye, 34, a single mother with two small sons, cannot make ends meet despite good work in the private sector.
“Things are getting more difficult financially,” said Gueye, who works as an executive assistant at a company that builds houses. “Despite my monthly salary, my parents help me at the end of the month, otherwise we just won’t make it.”
Gueye struggles to afford the cereal and juice her kids expect for breakfast each morning. She believes the government should invest more in local products so consumers are less dependent on expensive imported goods. “That way we can have the same quality at lower prices,” she said.
Saliou Diouf, 21, works at the Kermel market in Dakar, where he started as a bag carrier and now fulfills shopping orders for wealthy customers. “Business keeps getting better until prices go up. Then we lose customers,” he said.
Diouf said the pandemic has already taken a toll on the market. Traffic has slowed to a crawl this year: “Today I might have five customers, tomorrow two. I can never predict. Sometimes I go all day without seeing anyone.”
Serigne Bamba Gaye, an international development expert, said the longer the downturn lasts, the greater the chances of regional unrest.
“This can lead to social problems with strife, unrest and a rise in tensions that can weaken African states,” Gaye said. “Africa is at a crossroads and we must find ways and means to stop this inflationary spiral.”
Kevin Urama, acting chief economist at the African Development Bank Group, agrees, but says indebted governments have limited options to protect their people from rising prices.
“It’s like an earthquake followed by aftershocks,” Urama said of the inflation that follows the pandemic. “All of these global headwinds pose major challenges for countries. Inflation eats deeper into the pockets of households.”
At My Father’s House, a community kitchen in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, Pastor Shadrick Valayadum has spent more than 20 years feeding the homeless and needy. During the pandemic, people from all walks of life began turning to “Pastor Shaddie” for a hot meal.
“There were people in affluent areas who lived in big houses that we never thought would come visit. Then they did it,” he said.
Demand for food aid fell as the South African economy began to recover late last year; now, he said, rising prices are driving people back to the fringes, and his kitchen is struggling to keep up.
“We can no longer use cooking oil [because] it’s too expensive,” Pastor Shaddie said. “We use water, mix it with sugar and caramelize it in the saucepan, and as soon as it starts to brown, throw in water and then onions.”
The charity used to be able to afford meat four times a week. Today, most of the meals prepared are vegetarian. It’s a vital lifeline for the 1,500 people it feeds each day, a number the pastor expects will continue to grow.
“Families can no longer support themselves,” he said. “People are trying to catch up and catch up and catch up and they can’t.”
Tall reported from Dakar, Senegal.