March 17, 2020 / 1:18 PM / 16 days ago

'Preparing for war': Africans scramble for groceries

KIGALI (Reuters) - Alarmed consumers thronged markets across Africa on Tuesday, many in masks and gloves, to stock up as the coronavirus spread on the world’s poorest continent.

FILE PHOTO: Kenyan health workers dressed in protective suits walk after disinfecting the residence where Kenya's first confirmed coronavirus patient was staying, in the town of Rongai near Nairobi, Kenya March 14, 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo

Prices rose in some parts, though at least one country, Rwanda, sought to control costs of staple foods.

“It is as if people are preparing for war,” said an astonished shopkeeper as Rwandans clamoured for rice, cooking oil, sugar and flour at a market in the capital Kigali.

“Prices have gone up - but still they buy.”

Initially spared as the coronavirus battered China and then spread out, Africa has seen a rush of cases this month and governments are taking drastic measures to curb its spread.

At least 30 African nations have now reported more than 400 cases, seven in Rwanda.

For many poorer Africans, panic-buying was a privilege they could not afford.

“Rich people are not afraid of high prices. They are buying in huge quantities,” said 43-year-old Pascal Murengezi, a father-of-three hawking second hand clothes outside the Nyarugenge market in Kigali who said he could not afford more than a day’s worth of food.

“If the outbreak continues, I don’t know how I will sell clothes on empty streets.”

The shopkeeper, who declined to give his name fearing a visit from inspectors, said Tanzanian rice had risen from 27,000 francs ($29) to 30,000 francs per 25 kg bag while Pakistani rice was up from 22,000 francs to 28,000 francs.

Speaking as shoppers in masks and gloves picked over items, he blamed wholesalers for the increases.

The trade ministry in Rwanda fixed prices late on Monday for 17 food items including rice, sugar and cooking oil. It did not specify punishments for price-gouging.

Exasperated by the rises, Beatrice, a 52-year-old Rwandan with a child and no job, said she could only buy a minimum of rice. “You can’t see your children go hungry,” she said. “We don’t know when this coronavirus will stop. If I had enough money, I would buy a lot more food.”

SUPERMARKET SAYS SORRY

Kenya, East Africa’s economic powerhouse, also saw a rush on shops after reporting its first coronavirus case on Friday. Within minutes, shoppers at the upscale Carrefour supermarket near the United Nations complex in Nairobi began piling trolleys with wipes, sanitizer, and staples like rice and long-life milk.

Tusky’s, another Kenyan supermarket, urged customers not to panic and this week launched a home delivery service.

Like Rwanda, Kenya stepped in to try and curb price rises.

Its Competition Authority ordered another chain, Cleanshelf Supermarkets, to refund customers for overpricing hand sanitizers. The firm blamed one staff member for making unauthorised price increases.

“The recent experience is unjustifiable and we are very sorry,” said Veronica Wambui, head of sales and marketing, in a statement the company posted on Twitter.

From South Africa to Senegal, long lines snaked outside stores as families stocked up on items such as disinfectants and pasta.

“This is crazy. There’s almost nothing on the shelves,” said 68-year-old pensioner Barbara Ollerman, stacking rice in her trolley in Johannesburg’s Woolworths.

Auditor Sihle Qalinge at Checkers supermarket nearby said she had sneaked out of work to buy toilet paper - she had been trying to find it since Sunday.

Anna, the manager at Auchan supermarket in Dakar’s upmarket Mermoz area, said sales had doubled since last weekend. Hand sanitizer had run out and suppliers were struggling to fulfil orders, she said.

“The most sold items are pasta - people have taken everything!” she said, adding that prices remained the same, even though many desperate shoppers were not checking.

($1 = 943.7830 Rwandan francs)

Additional reporting by George Obulutsa and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi and Juliette Jabkhiro in Dakar; Writing by Elias Biryabarema and Katharine Houreld; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne

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