In Tunisian supermarkets, customers cannot buy more than three kilos of flour. Shelves often remain empty for days. And when the flour comes in, it is gone within minutes. Since the beginning of Ramadan, Tunisians have been waiting in line every morning for bread; with bakeries starting to ration it. Baguettes have become smaller and thinner, and semolina is often used instead of wheat. Bakers say they demand their usual supply of flour but receive less.
On the streets of the countryside, where unemployment and poverty rates are at their highest, you could often come across women baking khobz tabouna, a traditional oven-baked bread. But since the end of March, many of those popular ovens have closed.
Before the month of Ramadan, Tunisian citizens were usually victims of speculation vis-à-vis basic goods. It was no coincidence that during the last two weeks of March 2022, rice, sugar, and eggs also disappeared from shelves before reappearing with higher prices. At the time, President Kais Saied - who formally dissolved parliament on March 30th - started a campaign against speculators. On March 21st, the Tunisian government issued a decree-law condemning goods speculators to a sentence ranging from ten years to life imprisonment and fines of up to TD 500,000 (€ 155,000). However, in a critical statement about the threat to freedom of expression, Amnesty International Tunisia declared that the decree-law also sanctions the spreading of false or inaccurate information that might induce consumers to refrain from buying; opening the door to different interpretations of the text.
Wheat crisis - before and after Ukraine
Although the war against speculation made it possible to retrieve a few tons of flour with a series of spectacular operations across the country, the bread crisis is far from over. The twofold rising of fuel and cereals prices had already put the Tunisian State's finances in trouble during the last months of 2021, when ships loaded with cereals were stranded for weeks in Tunisian ports without the permission to discharge. Though the news was officially denied, in December the union’s General Secretary of the Tunisian Grain Office in Sfax confirmed that at least two ships with 27,000 and 25,000 tons of wheat each were stuck in front of the city's port due to the inability of the Grain Office (responsible for storing cereals on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture) to pay for the cargo.
Then, Russia attacked Ukraine. In Tunisia - the second largest pasta-consuming country after Italy - the cereals sector depends on imports. According to the latest data from the Arab Institute for Business Managers (IACE) “The War in Ukraine: impacts and actions to be taken” report, the country imports 40% of durum wheat, 84% of soft wheat, and 50% of barley. Tunisia's main wheat supplier is Ukraine (41%, amounting to 984,000 tons), followed by Canada, Spain, Russia, and Bulgaria. Therefore, the war in Ukraine and this year's crop failures will have major consequences on Tunisia's grain supply.
According to IACE, Tunisia only has three months of storage capacity. According to a recent statement by the Ministry of Agriculture, current stocks of durum wheat and barley will last until May 2022, while soft wheat needs will be covered until June 2022. Tunisia will then have to join the list of Middle Eastern and North African countries looking for new suppliers on the international market. Yet, Tunisia is already affected by the food crisis that analysts believe will occur in other MENA countries within the next few months. This is mainly a matter of solvency: the country is already struggling to finance wheat supply due to the increase in fuel and cereals prices in late 2021/early 2022.
Who will pay for rising prices?
In Tunisia, bread, semolina, pasta, couscous, and other basic goods (as well as fuel) are still subsidized by the government to keep the prices stable. Tunisia allocated TD 2.2 billion in the state budget for the compensation of basic goods, but the current level of cereals prices alone could lead to an additional compensation payment of about TD 1.3 billion, according to IACE. Indeed, without an increase in subsidies, the state would have to raise prices to absorb the costs, as is already happening gradually with gasoline. According to a research study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “the Tunisian government planned its budget around an oil price of $75 per barrel. But with oil prices around $100 per barrel, the government was forced to raise fuel prices twice in February in an attempt to rein in the country’s massive budget deficit”. With the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Tunisian authorities have begun increasing gasoline costs by 3% each month.
In order to tackle the country's financial crisis and avoid deficit, Tunisia has once again entered into negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, in return for a new aid programme, the IMF requires new austerity reforms, including cutting subsidies for basic goods such as bread or semolina. Yet, given the current prices, Tunisian families are already struggling to afford food. According to the National Statistical Institute, inflation has been rising for a year now (7.2% in March 2022) as well as food prices. In March 2022, for example, the price of eggs, olive oil, and fresh fruit increased by around 20% compared to the previous year. For many Tunisians, bread and cereals products are some of the few low-priced foods they can still afford.
Social consequences could be just around the corner, especially given the lack of a clear strategy from the government. According to the New Arab media outlet, authorities would allegedly avoid talking about the wheat issue. When the government announced an increase in the price of bread and cereals products under the auspices of the IMF in December 1983, Tunisian citizens took to the streets. "Bread, freedom and dignity" is the slogan citizens have been chanting since 2011 in Bourguiba Avenue, where it is easy to meet people symbolically holding a baguette at social protests. Over the last ten years, bread has become the symbol of social movements in the country, and it doesn’t seem it will stop.