Iyesatu Turay says he no longer has enough to support his family in this vast shantytown of corrugated iron shacks in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
Life was already tough among the litter-strewn streets of the shanty town of Kroo Bay, where stray pigs and dogs roamed.
But the distant war in Ukraine made it even more difficult. The sharp rise in the prices of essential products such as rice, cooking oil or fuel is felt most severely when living on less than $1.9 a day, as 43% of people in Sierra Leone do, according to the World Bank.
“We need help,” pleads Iyesatu Turay, 28, a mother of three whose husband lost his job during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s hard to survive on just one meal late at night,” she explains. “We have no food, no water, no electricity,” laments Iyesatu Turay, for whom the chronic shortage of water and electricity makes everyday life even more painful.
Despite its natural wealth of diamonds, Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world and one of the bottom ten on the United Nations Human Development Index, which aggregates economic data with others such as life expectancy or educational levels.
The former British colony and its 7.5 million people were still recovering from a brutal 1991-2002 civil war and the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa as the Covid-19 pandemic hit them.
The fear of a new blow from the Ukraine crisis for the poorest countries has become reality here.
– Soar –
Musa Sesay, a Freetown grocer, points out that all of his suppliers have increased their prices. “We are not responsible for the price increase, it is a global problem,” he understands.
A 50-kilo sack of rice that used to cost the equivalent of around 27 euros now costs 32 euros, 20% more.
Fuel prices have skyrocketed. In late March, the Petroleum Products Regulatory Agency (PRA) raised gasoline and diesel caps by 34% and 40%, respectively, from January.
The PRA cited supply difficulties in connection with the “deteriorating geopolitical situation in Europe”.
The government still says it stepped in to cushion the shock and ensure the additional cost of imports isn’t passed on entirely to the pump.
Taxi and truck drivers recently went on strike, blocking several streets in the capital. Police used tear gas against demonstrators who were protesting the increase in the cost of living.
At the beginning of April, the central bank estimated inflation for February at 17.6%.
President Julius Maada Bio, elected in 2018, will find it difficult to keep the promise he made during his election campaign to tackle poverty and hunger.
– “Not our business” –
“The war in Ukraine is none of our business, but our compatriots are suffering,” he told business leaders in April. He promised to take action to help “common people”.
Before this new crisis, Sierra Leone was struggling to secure electricity and drinking water and to keep inflation under control.
In 2020, the government signed a five-year deal with Karpowership for the Turkish company to operate one of its offshore floating power plants.
However, power outages are still the order of the day. A senior Energy Department official said on condition of anonymity that maintenance work, payment worries and devastation to infrastructure are affecting supplies.
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) warned on April 14 that West Africa was facing an “unprecedented food and nutrition crisis” due to conflict, climate change and Covid-19.
“The number of people suffering from acute hunger in the region has quadrupled in three years and this year has reached its highest level in 10 years,” he was alarmed.
With food and fuel prices soaring around the world, WFP said it “urgently” needs an additional $951 million over the next six months.
“Our salaries are not enough to pay for food, clothing and household bills,” said Ibrahim Sesay, a Freetown teacher. “We are poor and we are hungry”.