Food Price Volatility over the Last Decade
in Niger and Malawi: Extent, Sources and
Impact on Child Malnutrition
Giovanni Andrea Cornia, Laura Deotti and Maria Sassi
Giovanni Andrea Cornia University of Florence, Department of Economics, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
by email to the author(s).
This paper is part of a series of recent research commissioned for the African Human Development Report. The
researchers. The findings, interpretations and conclusions are strictly those of the authors and do not necessarily
represent the views of UNDP or United Nations Member States. Moreover, the data may not be consistent with
that presented in the African Human Development Report.
hikes in international food prices which took place in 2007-8 and, again, in 2010-11. While sacrosanct,
this growing focus has somewhat obscured the effect of other factors which do affect malnutrition in
the Sub-Saharan Africa context, i.e. the long term impact of agricultural policies, huge and persistent
seasonal variation in domestic food prices, and the impact of famines which still regularly stalk the
continent. This paper focuses on the relative weight of these factors in explaining child malnutrition
(proxied by the number of child admissions to feeding centers) in Malawi and Niger, two prototypical
countries in the region. The analysis shows that the drivers of domestic food staple prices and of the
ensuing child malnutrition have to be found not only – or not primarily – in the changes of
international food prices but mainly in the impact of agricultural policies on food production, the
persistence of a strong food price seasonality, and recurrent and often poorly attended famines.
Indeed, even during years of declines in international food prices, these factors often exert a huge
upward pressures on domestic food prices and child malnutrition.
Keywords: Food prices, Famines, Seasonality, Food Policy, Child malnutrition, Niger, Malawi
Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank warmly all the people who provided data,
comments and bibliographical material for the preparation of this paper. Among them: Guido
Cornale, Gwénola Desplats and Eric-Alain Ategbo (Unicef-Niger), Djibril Sadou (SIMA-Niger), Jean-
Mathieu Bloch (Dispositif National de Gestion et de Prévention des Crises Alimentaires”- Niger), Hama
Abdou Yacouba (FEWS-Net Niger), Bruno Martorano and Linda Menchi Rogai (University of Florence)
Alexandre Castellano (COOPI, Malawi), Paola Fava (COOPI); James Bwirani (FEWSNet, Malawi), Olex
Kamowa (FEWSNet Malawi), Fydess Mkomba (Centre For Social Concern, Malawi), and an anonymous
UNDP referee. The usual caveats apply.
After peaking in 1974, the real international (US$) food prices declined steadily till 1990 and
then stagnated at a comparatively low level until mid 2007 (Figure 1), suggesting that with a
growth of 1-1.5 per cent a year supply was growing faster than effective demand.
observed between mid 2008 and mid 2010 did not offset its prior increase. In addition, the
international food prices have surged again at a fast rate since mid 2010, and in January-May
2011 they had already exceeded the peak recorded in mid 2008 (Figure 2). The FAO estimates
that these two surges in international food prices caused a marked increase in malnutrition in
developing countries, as the rise in international prices was ‘passed through’ onto domestic
prices. For instance, between 2005 and 2008 the number of undernourished people rose
from 850 million to 963 million, and reached the historical peak of 1.02 billion people in 2009
(FAO, 2010), while the Development Committee of the World Bank-IMF (2011) estimates that
the current food price spike has resulted in an estimated net increase of 44 million more
people in poverty.
Figure 1 - Price indexes (1990 constant US$ prices) for petroleum, grains and all food
Source: World Bank Commodity Price Data
At the level of each single country, however, the transmission of changes in international
food prices on domestic food prices is far than straightforward, and the extent of such
transmission varies a lot according to its dependence on food imports, transport costs, pass-
through margins, tradability of domestic foods, exchange rate variations and so on. In
addition, the impact on malnutrition depends very much on the speed of such transmission,
as a sharp short-term adjustment of domestic to world prices may impact the poor
negatively, while a gradual transmission over the medium-long term might not harm their
Thus, whether, by how much, and at what speed surges in international food prices are
passed on to domestic prices is a matter for empirical investigation. In this regard, it is worth
recalling that in many SSA countries domestic food prices have often exhibited huge spikes
and considerable volatility even during the long period of stability - or even decline - in
international food prices depicted in Figure 1.