United Nations officials have announced that the second shipment of Russian fertiliser will go to West Africa after a first attempt was blocked in European ports because of sanctions imposed due to the conflict in Ukraine. The move follows talks between Moscow and the UN.

Secretary General of UN’s trade and development agency UNCTAD, Rebeca Grynspan, told journalists: “There are around 300,000 tonnes of fertiliser in the different European ports. The first shipping will leave from a Netherlands port, going to Malawi, the vessel is loading right now. And the date that has been established for the vessel to go is 21 November, to Malawi through Mozambique.”

Grynspan added: “Beyond Malawi, with the donation from Uralchem/Uralkali, the intervention of [the World Food Programme], and the help of the World Bank and France, we hope that the next destination of the fertilisers will be West Africa. That has been very affected by the affordability crisis of fertilisers.”

One of the reasons Russia gave for suspending its participation in the UN-brokered grain deal in October was that the grains leaving Ukrainian ports were not making it to countries with the most need, as agreed by all parties when the deal was first signed in July. Russia effectively accused Ukraine and the UN of diverting grain shipments away from developing countries.

Although the UN denied it, there is a sense that this new focus on West Africa is a response to that allegation, as it scrambles desperately to save a deal that helps ensure food security in an otherwise volatile part of the world. In the broader sense, this move is also part of Russia’s soft power attempt to continue to rally countries that are not vociferously critical but remain ambivalent to its actions in Ukraine.

Beyond grain politics, the key commodity in question is fertiliser. According to Statista, Morocco exported fertiliser to sub-Saharan Africa worth US$880 million in 2020. This makes the North African country the leading regional fertiliser supplier, followed by Saudi Arabia and Russia. Still, this mix has been constrained in this post-COVID, geopolitically heightened environment.

What the conflict in Ukraine has done, among other things, is set off a chain reaction of protectionism as exporters become wary of undersupplying their domestic market. While no single source can meet Africa’s needs and long-term solutions urgently need to be rolled out, the new allocations will go some way in bumping up short-term food security in the continent. The concern is that it may not be enough to stave off a crisis.