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First Ukrainian grain ship headed to Africa

The first ship to pick up wheat for Ethiopia from Ukraine is making it the first food delivery to Africa under an UN-brokered plan to deliver grain trapped by Russia’s war, according to a report by the Associated Press on Aug.12.

Grain has been piling up in Ukraine for months because of a Russian blockade and fighting that started in February. As a result, food prices have skyrocketed and led to hunger in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

Several grain ships have left Ukrainian ports the last several days but most were animal feed destined for Turkey or Western Europe.

European Council President Charles Michel announced on Aug. 12 that the first shipment by the UN’s World Food Programme of humanitarian aid for Africa would soon load and then depart.

MarineTraffic, a tracking website, showed the ship headed toward southern Ukraine, AP said.

Michel said the ship would bring grain to Ethiopia, saying “cooperation of all involved actors is key” to alleviating food shortages and hunger around the world.

The Brave Commander was expected to carry more than 23,000 tonnes, according to Ukraine’s Infrastructure Ministry — a small fraction of the 20 million tonnes of grain that has languished in Ukraine. The ship was expected to dock in Horn of Africa nations of Djibouti, Ethiopia, along with neighboring Somalia and Kenya.

Thousands of people across the region have died from hunger or illness this year. Forecasts for the coming weeks indicate that for the first time, a fifth straight rainy season will fail to materialize, AP said.

The World Food Program said this first ship is an “important step” in getting Ukrainian grain out of the country to the worst-affected countries.

For six months, ships filled with grain have been sitting idle in ports along the Black Sea, victims of Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Now some of those ships are moving, navigating the perils of a war zone with cargo of sometimes sketchy quality.

“It only takes one missile to fly across the place and hit something, and then it all stops,” says John Rich, chairman of Ukrainian agriculture giant MHP, which has continued operations in the country even while many of its competitors left when war broke out. “There’s light in the tunnel with the ports. But the tunnel could close rapidly. It only takes one act, and that’s gone. It’s a high risk.”

Earlier this week, the first ship to leave the port of Odesa, stalled and anchored in the Mediterranean Sea near Turkey, carrying a cargo of 26,527 tons of corn, according to the government of Lebanon, the ship’s original destination.

The shipments are crucial to combating hunger, but the grain may not be the solution it could be. As war broke out in February, crews abandoned their ships, many of which didn’t run for six months. That means many of them haven’t been ventilated. It’s likely that a lot of grain has grown mold or even mycotoxins from the humidity of the high seas.

Even getting the shipments out of the ports is extremely difficult. Aside from the mines, the southern part of Ukraine is very much an active war zone. Ukrainians are in the midst of a counteroffensive to try to win back the port city of Mariupol, among other municipalities. The troops are facing heavy artillery from Russia.

Most of the Ukrainian grain hitting Europe had been intended for countries in the Middle East and Africa, like Egypt, where people have been struggling to buy enough grain. MHP has several 15-year-plus contracts in the Middle East and Africa, which Rich says MHP has not been able to fulfill.

Ukraine and Russia are responsible for exporting 30% of the world’s cereal grains and nearly 70% of its sunflower oil. They supply more than half the grain to 36 countries. Prior to the conflict, 98% of Ukraine’s grain exports were shipped via the Black Sea, which Russian ships blockaded starting in February.

The reopening of the ports, even temporarily as a United Nations-brokered deal lasts for 120 days, is a powerful symbol for the global hunger crisis, says Abiola Afolayan, a former UN official who’s now a senior international policy advisor for the anti-hunger organization Bread for the World.

This is a very delicate situation, Afolayan says. “There’s concern about getting the grain out safely,” she says. “The big issue has been attacks on ships and getting out of the port of Odesa. But this is just one of the key components of solving the global food crisis that we are faced with. It by no means must be the only avenue.”

Worldwide, the UN says that over the past few years, the number of people “marching to starvation” around the world has ballooned to 323 million from 80 million, with 49 million people in 43 countries at risk of famine.

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