At present, you cannot step into a marketplace or a grocery store in Rwanda without noticing that food prices are soaring. As a landlocked country, Rwanda has been hit hard by the global rise in food prices, driven by external factors (like the Ukraine war, fertilizer costs, and energy prices) and a domestic decline in food production (in 2022, food crops production experienced a 2.1% decline, with a 5.1% decline in the 2nd agricultural season). In December 2022, the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda reported a staggering 59.2% annual year-on-year inflation on food items.
Figure 1. Year-on-year food inflation in Rwanda
Poor households are bearing the brunt of this rise in food prices.
According to the latest household data, low-income households in Rwanda typically spend more than a third of their overall budget on food, and the costs of staples that make up most of a poor household’s expenditure on food have risen sharply. The current inflation pattern is also highly regressive, affecting the poorest households the most. Historically, in response to high food inflation and other economic shocks, 72 percent of Rwandan households have reported buying less food, leading to lower nutritional intakes, particularly the most vulnerable families.
From past and global patterns, what could the future hold for Rwanda?
Apart from adversely impacting health and nutrition, global evidence suggests that food inflation could adversely impact education outcomes through at least two channels.
First, government expenditure on education tends to diminish in real terms in times of high inflation and rising food prices. As governments spend less on construction/maintenance that improves access to education for remote villages or on recruiting and training new teachers, both access and quality of education suffer in the medium to long run. In the short run, rising food costs also tend to negatively impact government school feeding programs. As seen in parts of India earlier this year, without revised cost estimates or additional government support, the nutritional content of meals and portion sizes decline —either in absolute terms, i.e., fewer meals offered or via less diverse meals with schools substituting more expensive items for items they can still afford while trying to feed as many students as possible. Educationists in Rwanda have recently expressed concern about the impact that the rise in prices has had on the country’s school feeding program. Rwanda’s estimate of the cost of a base meal per student was based on menu modelling conducted in 2019, and teachers have called for a tax exemption on school feeding fees to address spiralling costs.
Second, increased expenditure on food impairs households' ability to bear the direct cost of education, such as tuition (hidden and/or official fees), purchasing books, scholastic material, school uniforms, transportation, and contribution to school meals. During the COVID-19 pandemic, reduced household income forced parents from marginalized households in Rwanda to increasingly depend on their children’s labor, either at home or in the informal labor market, reducing the time available for studying and increasing the overall risk of children discontinuing their studies. Reduction in household income also forces many parents to work longer hours, making it more challenging for them to assist their children in doing school work. Finally, increased parental stress and anxiety during an uncertain and challenging time worsens home-based learning environments, which is detrimental to children’s psychological well-being and overall capacity to learn.
The potential negative impact of food crisis on education outcomes in Africa is well documented. A 2012 paper found a direct negative impact of the food crisis on primary completion rates in Africa. Children continued to enroll, but parents struggled to cater to the costs, and subsequently, drop-out rates increased. Another study from Burkina Faso found that even a temporary loss of purchasing power severely impacted children’s schooling. Further research from Ethiopia documented that food inflation shocks can predict substantial decreases in children’s cognitive ability. Stunting and malnutrition rates are already high in Rwanda, with every third child stunted. A reduction in household income available for food expenditure, coupled with a possible scale-down of the government school feeding program, either in the quantity or quality, may result in an increase in malnutrition and a consequent decline in cognition and learning. Girls also tendto be disproportionately impacted during times of economic hardship.
What can and should be done?
Urgent, holistic action is needed to improve education outcomes and recover from COVID-induced learning losses, a predicament that the global food crisis will compound, not only in Rwanda but in most marginalized countries in the world. It is a multi-faceted challenge requiring concerted actions across sectors, among global stakeholders and national partners, and concrete government support to the most vulnerable, enabling them to cope with the drastic increases in food costs.
The government of Rwanda has taken laudable steps to improve education outcomes – through the construction of 22,000+ new classrooms, a robust school feeding program and an increase in teacher salaries. However, sustaining recurrent expenditure in light of rising inflation could prove challenging and potentially impact education-related investments in the future.
In collaboration with the government, the World Bank is taking a multi-sectoral approach by supporting Rwandan agriculture, social protection measures (such as cash transfer programs), education, and preventative health and nutrition programs. Using recent data, the World Bank Education team in Rwanda is currently modelling the impact of food inflation on education outcomes in the country. In addition, programs aim for a strategic balance between immediate and medium-term investments and reforms. For example, the Rwanda’s Quality Basic Education for Human Capital Development Project includes sustainable and systemic interventions for greater efficiency in the use of resources, coherent management at the local and central levels, effective delivery mechanisms, and a focus on outcomes—all of which are vital to insulate the education sector from inflation-induced headwinds. Ensuring such efficiency gains in education expenditure are critical for reducing out-of-pocket costs for households and increasing human capital growth in Rwanda.
With contributions from Huma Kidwai and Zaeen de Souza.