The conflict and Western sanctions on Moscow are disrupting supplies of wheat, fertilizer and other goods, compounding difficulties facing Africa from climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is an unprecedented crisis for the continent”, UNDP Africa chief economist Raymond Gilpin told a press conference in Geneva.
Gilpin, who spoke by video-conference from New York, said there were risks from a widespread surge in inflation, particularly in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone.
“We are seeing a reduction of GDP growth on the continent, supposed to rise slightly this year after Covid,” he said.
That puts millions of households at risk across the continent — which includes a majority of the poorest countries in the world.
Economic difficulties could also exacerbate social tensions in crisis-hit parts of the continent, such as the Sahel, parts of central Africa and Horn of Africa.
“Tensions, particularly in urban area, low-income communities, could spill over and lead to violent protests and violent riots,” he said.
Countries holding elections this year and next year were particularly vulnerable.
Many African countries depend heavily on food imports and fertilizer from Russia and Ukraine, two major exporters of wheat, corn, rapeseed and sunflower oil. Rising oil prices from the war have also increased fuel and diesel costs.
In some African countries, up to 80 percent of wheat came from Russia and Ukraine.
“With the disruptions that now happen, you see an urgent situation materialise because where do these countries turn overnight for commodities?” said UN Under-Secretary General and UNDP Africa regional director Ahunna Eziakonwa.
She said the crisis could also impact debt for many African countries with high borrow rates such as Ghana.
“There needs to be an effort by multilateral, bilateral institutions to really think about” restructuring debt, she said.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said this week he was seeking talks to bring back Ukrainian and Russian agriculture and fertilizer products into world markets to help end a “three-dimensional” crisis in developing nations.
The International Monetary Fund said last month the war in Ukraine had already significantly impacted the Middle East and North Africa, warning high prices may lead to social unrest in Africa.