In Tunisia, repeated food shortages

LETTER FROM TUNIS

On the shelves of supermarkets in Tunis and small shops, a liter of milk is rationed at “two units per customer”, as stipulated by the signs placed in front of the already practically empty stalls. A new headache for Tunisians, who face shortages of many foodstuffs, such as white sugar, coffee, rice, butter and even soft drinks and bottled mineral water. Most of these products are sold in limited quantities.

Jawher [qui a souhaité rester anonyme] leaves a supermarket in Ariana, north of Tunis, with four pots of yogurt in hand. “I can do without coffee and sugar, but I have two growing children and I don’t know what to give them instead of milk for their breakfast”launches this 47-year-old engineer.

This shortage is the symptom of a dairy industry that is suffering. On his farm in Borj Touil, on the outskirts of Tunis, Walid Oussya, a breeder like his father before him, is desperate. His cows with protruding bones produce half the milk they did a few months ago. “I was one of the nicest cows in my neighborhood and now look, they’ve never been so skinny”says the forties.

Of his twenty-eight animals, he has decided to sell ten in recent months, for lack of being able to feed them. He is not the only one in the milk sector in Tunisia, which has been in bad shape for years due to the rise in the world price of animal feed, based on imported corn and soybeans. An increase that has reached 30% to 40% this year due to the war in Ukraine, a major grain producer.

Many breeders give up

In Tunisia, the selling price of milk is set by the State, which partly subsidizes the sector to support consumers. But, in recent years, the cost of production has been much higher and many farmers are working at a loss.

“The consumer buys a liter of milk for 1.35 dinars [0,42 euro], while its production cost is 1.80 dinar. The breeder is the last link in the chain in the sector’s subsidies. And, today, he can no longer cope, explains an industrialist from the dairy sector who wished to remain anonymous. The sector is currently running at 80% of its capacity, due to a lack of milk supply. Result: manufacturers are unable to supply distributors with their needs. “Obviously, this affects the supermarket shelves, which are half empty”continues our source.

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Many breeders give up and sell their cows, like Walid Oussya, who says he wants to work on construction sites and give up the job. The decrease in livestock is estimated between 20% and 30% over the last three years, according to Karim Daoud, member of the agricultural union Synagri. He himself had to sell fifteen cattle this year to balance his production costs. “The industry is dying. The problem of the shortage of milk is seasonal, we brood over the same grievances every year without it improving”he said.

This risk of the sector collapsing is just one malfunction among others of a sluggish Tunisian economy, as evidenced by the shortages of recent weeks. Many are due to problems importing certain products, while Tunisia lacks the budget and foreign exchange to cope with the global increase in food prices, a consequence of the war in Ukraine.

Faced with these economic difficulties, official discourse is not very transparent. White sugar, largely purchased abroad, has not been found for several weeks. The Trade Office of Tunisia (OCT), responsible for importing this raw material, justified itself by evoking the cancellation of a supply by one of its suppliers, without mentioning payment problems. Tunisia ordered, at the beginning of September, 47,000 tonnes of sugar to secure its stocks until October, and 20,000 tonnes are already flowing in from Algeria, according to statements by Elyes Ben Ameur, the director of OCT.

“We have no information, we go to the wholesaler and we buy what there is”

Covertly, many private sector officials point to the failure of the State to set up a strategic stock of food products and a difficulty in mobilizing financial resources to import. Before the summer, the question of cereal imports had also posed a problem for the State’s finances and the Cereals Office had had to seek help from donors such as the World Bank to secure its stocks.

” Critical situation “

At the top of the state, President Kaïs Saïed, who has held all the powers for nearly a year, blames the “speculators” and those who “hold the monopolies” on certain sectors. But today, even on the parallel market, most foodstuffs are in short supply. “What is happening now is not really a matter of speculation”testifies a wholesaler from the Bhar Lazreg district, in Tunis, stressing that, even during the Covid-19 pandemic, the country had not experienced so many shortages.

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These repeated disturbances reveal the inability of the authorities to prevent the economy from tumbling, according to economist Hachemi Alaya. And the indicators do not suggest much improvement, while inflation exceeded the 8% threshold this summer.

Current political rhetoric does not reflect “the reality of the situation, which is critical”, he says. The government, in negotiations for months with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan of several billion dollars, communicates little about the state of the country’s finances.

Among the population, this lack of transparency causes confusion and frustration. But the shortages did not lead to a wave of social protest. “We have no information, we go to the wholesaler and buy what is there. At the moment, the majority of products are missing, you just have to be patient”indicates, resigned, Mongi Sabaani, 56, grocer at Ariana.

A few meters from his shop, Rym [qui a souhaité rester anonyme] emerges almost empty-handed from a supermarket. “I have done six trades since this morning, says this 40-year-old housewife. I can’t find butter, I had to buy margarine. Milk and sugar, I haven’t even looked for them for weeks. » According to him, the problem of shortages is ” Politics “. “There are people who want to turn the population against Kaïs Saïed by making the people hungry. »

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