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What it took to ship out Ukraine's first grain delivery since Russia's invasion


Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine was one of the largest grain producers in the world, feeding millions across the globe. Over the last six months, the war almost completely halted those shipments. But in August, the first wheat exports in months finally left the country. One of the ships was chartered by the World Food Programme, which works to address hunger emergencies. The shipment was sent to the Horn of Africa region, which the organization says is seeing catastrophic levels of hunger due to the disruption caused by the invasion, in addition to drought and regional conflicts. We wanted to hear more about how things are going, so we called Michael Dunford. He's the eastern Africa regional director for the World Food Programme, and he's with us now from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Mr. Dunford, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

MICHAEL DUNFORD: Michel, it's a pleasure.

MARTIN: So before we get into the details, would you just give us a little bit of background? In addition to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, I was saying that the drought in the Horn of Africa region has played a major role in creating this food crisis. How long has this been going on, and how - what impact has this had on food insecurity?

DUNFORD: Michel, in fact, there's a whole range of contributing factors that are driving the population in eastern Africa to these desperate levels. And first and foremost, that includes conflicts. That's conflicts in the region - and I think of northern Ethiopia and South Sudan and Somalia - but then also conflicts abroad, such as Ukraine. Then, in addition to that, there's climate change, and we are living, currently, through the worst drought in 40 years. We've had four failed rainy seasons, and this is severely impacting Somalia, northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia, but equally now stretching to Djibouti and also eastern Uganda. Add to that the impact of COVID, which we're all still recovering from. So you bring all of those factors together - we've got the perfect recipe for hunger.

MARTIN: Could you just describe the process of getting the grain out of Ukraine? I imagine it's not the easiest thing in the best of times, let alone during a war. Is there anything you can tell us about how you made it work?

DUNFORD: At any single time, we have either 20 or 30 ships on the seas. And so we're very used to dealing in difficult circumstances. We were able to secure a vessel, which was loaded in Ukraine about two, 2 1/2, three weeks ago. It then sailed - it needed to go through the various verifications and checks that are defined by the Black Sea Initiative. And then it arrived in Djibouti port on Tuesday morning and then started to unload 23,000 metric tons. This is enough food for 1.53 million people. One-and-a-half million people will have meals on their table from WFP for a month.

MARTIN: Well, a month is not nothing, but it's not enough to sustain people for the long haul. So what do you need to happen next?

DUNFORD: Well, we need more vessels, both from Ukraine and elsewhere in the world. What we now need to ensure is that (inaudible) so that it happens more effectively. We need a steady supply chain. And to do that, we also need to increase the levels of funding to the World Food Programme so that we can continue to expand our operations in countries like Ethiopia, in Somalia and South Sudan.

MARTIN: That is Michael Dunford. He's the eastern Africa regional director for the World Food Programme. We reached him in Addis Ababa. Mr. Dunford, thanks so much for talking with us and sharing this expertise. I do hope we'll talk again.

DUNFORD: Michel, thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.