Durban - The price of some fresh produce has doubled in the past few months, with other items soon to follow as the drought tightens its grip over the country.
And researchers say the price of a basket of food has risen by 4% in the past month alone, with experts predicting even steeper increases as the drought and the effects on the economy kick in.
An agricultural economist said the poor would shoulder a major part of the burden because a larger chunk of their budget was spent on food.
For the vegetable sellers at the city’s Early Morning Market in Warwick Avenue, the struggle to keep prices reasonable for their customers while making a profit is all too real.
The secretary of the Early Morning Market Traders Association Romila Chetty said the prices of fresh produce had escalated and, in some cases, almost doubled.
“We cater for lower income groups, so we have to keep that in mind when setting prices. We can’t make our stuff unaffordable, but we also have to ask ourselves how long we will last if the prices continue to soar like this.”
They get their products from all over KwaZulu-Natal, including Richmond and Mooi River.
She said a bag of eight heads of cabbage now cost R100, whereas six months ago the price was just R45. One cabbage was R4 but had increased to R15.
Tomatoes used to cost R80 a crate but now go for R150. The price of potatoes had jumped from R60 to R100 for 10kg.
More alarming findings are outlined in the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action’s most recent monthly food price barometer report (for December).
It looks at a “food basket” of 36 basic items, put together based on information from women in poorer communities. The supplies, bought every month, can feed seven.
Facilitator and research and advocacy co-ordinator Julie Smith told The Mercury that month on month (November to December), they saw a 4.01% increase (R66.08) moving the total value of the basket from R1 648.10 to R1 714.18.
“This is a massive increase, the highest we have seen in the last year. The year-on-year increase (December 2014 to December 2015) is 8.24%. These are substantial increases.”
Smith said the trajectory was that food prices were going to continue to go up substantially. It was difficult to say whether the drought was the only factor affecting prices.
“We don’t know whether prices go up because produce sourced is directly affected by the drought, or if supermarkets manipulate the universality of the drought narrative and therefore societal perceptions to profit from calamity.”
Using the lowest prices from six different shops – including Checkout, Supersave and Boxer, which also have branches in Durban – which service the lower-income market, a 10kg bag of onions cost R27.33 in November. In December, it was priced at R33.16.
A 3kg bag of tomatoes would set a customer back R39.50. A month later, a similar bag cost R48.16.
Potatoes (10kg) increased from R35 to R49.71 in the same month.
Prices at larger shops were also high.
Tomatoes (3kg) and onions (7kg) at Pick n Pay cost R37.50 and R39.99 respectively.
A 10kg bag of potatoes (10kg) cost R69.98.
Smith said January was a bad month for families because of the additional education costs, and foods that went up tended to be starches, cheaper proteins and vegetables.
Agricultural economist Dr Lloyd James Baiyegunhi, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, predicted that food prices would continue to increase as the drought worsened.
“Because the rains had not arrived on time, farmers planted their crops later. This affected the cropping season and production was not as high as usual. Limited quantity invariably raises prices.”
He said while the problem was universal, the poor, who spent a higher percentage of their income on food, would shoulder the burden.