Home Business war in Ukraine worsens wheat shortages

war in Ukraine worsens wheat shortages

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In the supermarkets of Tunis, for weeks, it is almost impossible to find flour. And when there are, signs tell customers not to buy more than two kilos. A rationing that reflects the shortages of basic products, such as flour or oil, and which have lasted for more than a month.

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The concern is palpable among customers, especially since bread is the main accompaniment to meals in Tunisia. Hela, a mother, has already changed her eating habits. She favors vegetables as much as she can afford. “I cook dishes that are eaten with a spoon, because in the afternoon we can’t find any bread”, she explains, in the queue in front of a bakery in the medina.

A crisis that is likely to last

In the queue, Rim is overwhelmed: “In the supermarkets, there is no flour, no oil and sometimes not even sugar, and the price of the baguette is rising! » Three weeks before the start of Ramadan, some customers want to anticipate the worst and buy in large quantities to store the products at home and freeze baguettes. Especially since households are already weighed down by inflation that rises to 6.5% in 2021 – it even reaches nearly 10% for many food products – and the rise in fuel prices, while the average salary stagnates at €250.

This crisis is likely to last because the causes are deep. According to economist Fadhel Kaboub, the depreciation of the exchange rate, due to a large trade deficit, has made food imports more expensive. With public finances at their lowest, the State has been struggling to supply itself with wheat for several months, especially since the cereal is reaching record prices. The pandemic had already complicated supplies. And now “the war in Ukraine directly affects Tunisia since we import 50% of our wheat from Russia and Ukraine”, he specifies.

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Panic has already won over bakers, even though the majority of them benefit from state-subsidized flour. “The government wants to reassure us by telling us that there are flour reserves until June, but in the meantime, we are not being supplied with enough, worries Abdellah, a baker in downtown Tunis. Sometimes, for lack of flour, I have to close at noon. » “The state must also tackle smuggling, a lot of stocks go to Libya”, he accuses.

For the minority of unsubsidized bakers, the consequences are more disastrous. “The mills sometimes refuse to supply us and only supply us with five-kilo bags and at higher prices”, storm Abdelkrim Ben Mehrez, head of the professional group of modern bakeries.

“I had to close on certain days, like many bakers”

Last February, for his bakery near Tunis, Abdelkrim Ben Mehrez received only half of the expected quantity. “I had to close on certain days, like many bakers”, is he alarmed. And the increase in the price of the baguette, from 200 to 250 millimes (from 6 to 7 euro cents) remains insufficient, according to him. “We would have to sell it at over 400 to make a profit,” he says, preparing to demonstrate soon.

→ ANALYSIS. Tunisia is still awaiting an economic policy

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Faced with fears of a weakening of food security, President Kaïs Saïed accused, Thursday, March 10, speculators of being at the origin of this crisis, promising to punish them. “But while speculators are exacerbating our problems, they are not the cause of this crisis,” explains Fadhel Kaboub.

While ancient Carthage was Rome’s granary, present-day Tunisia is highly dependent on foreign countries due to policies that favor agricultural production intended for export to Europe. For the economist, it is urgent to “quickly redefine our priorities to regain our food sovereignty. This is the only way to insulate the country from these external shocks”.

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North Africa in trouble

Russia and Ukraine account for 30% of world wheat exports. Ukraine is also the leading exporter of sunflower oil.

The United States Department of Agriculture (Usda) forecast on March 9 a drop of 17% in exports from Ukraine and 8% from Russia by the end of the 2021-2022 season, indicating that these figures could be revised.

Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer. The 105 million inhabitants are very big eaters of bread, with 150 to 180 kg per inhabitant and per year, twice as much as the world average. For the year 2021-2022, the country should produce 9 million tonnes of wheat and import more than 12, 85% so far from Russia and Ukraine.

Algeria imports two thirds of its consumption. She had decided to stop importing French wheat and to turn to Russia.

Morocco, which produced 10 million tonnes last year, expects a catastrophic production due to the exceptional drought that is raging in the Mediterranean basin.

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