North African countries scramble for wheat amid war in Ukraine

War in Europe has disrupted wheat imports to many countries, fuelling fears of higher prices and shortages

A woman checks bread she bought a bakery in Cairo. Reuters
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North African countries are rushing to find new supplies of wheat to help keep rising food prices in check, as the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to hit the region.

With global supply chains already under strain due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a wheat-buying frenzy in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – all of which depend heavily on imported wheat to feed their populations – lays bare the magnitude of the challenge governments face amid sharp rises in food prices.

The crisis was highlighted by the UN food agency, which this week predicted that poorer countries in northern Africa, Asia and the Middle East that depend heavily on wheat imports risk suffering significant food insecurity because of the war in Ukraine.

Ramadan, which will begin in the first week of April, threatens to compound the problem, with wheat consumption likely to rise as people in the region mark the holy month with traditional dishes.

Of the five nations in northern Africa, Egypt’s wheat predicament is perhaps the gravest.

The world’s largest wheat importer with a population of 102 million, Egypt relies on Russia and Ukraine for 80 per cent of its supply.

Egypt’s wheat is chiefly used to make the flatbreads provided for about 60 million citizens who are entitled to subsidised food.

Moroccan women preparing bread in a village in the Atlas mountains. AFP

The remainder of Egyptians eat so-called “free market” bread, the price of which has soared since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, in some cases by up to 50 per cent.

But they say the price of bread is only part of the problem.

“It is not just the bread whose price rose. The price of eggs, chicken, meat and wheat. They have all gone up,” said Suna Ahmed, 70, from Cairo. “Maybe it’s to do with Ramadan, but it was never so bad before.”

Those among the millions of Egyptians who rely on subsidised bread say they were already under pressure.

Fahd Hassan, 33, an office clerk from Cairo with three children, says the size of the loaf available on the food subsidy card has shrunk over the years, forcing him to sometimes supplement his ration with the more expensive variety on the free market.

“But it is not just about bread now. Everything has dizzyingly gone up. It’s a nightmare,” he said.

Mr Hassan is entitled to five loaves a day on his card, at 0.25 Egyptian pounds each.

On Sunday, Supply Minister Ali Moselhy said the government aimed to procure more than six million tonnes of local wheat during the harvest season, which starts in mid-April.

To encourage the sale of more wheat to the government, president Abdel Fattah El Sisi on Sunday ordered that “incentives” be offered to growers.

Egypt’s state grains buyer said this week that a previously contracted 63,000 tonnes of Russian wheat, and a similar amount of Ukrainian and Romanian wheat, was due to arrive in the country in days.

It received 63,000 tonnes of French wheat on March 8, and a similar amount of Romanian wheat on March 5, the state General Authority for Supply Commodities said.

Tunisia, Morocco and Libya also import much of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Algeria, Africa’s second-largest wheat consumer after Egypt, imports it mostly from France and Argentina.

In one supermarket in the Tunisian capital this week, the shelves had no flour or semolina, a staple used across North Africa in couscous dishes.

Store managers said the problem was “panic buying” rather than shortages.

Almost half of the wheat Tunisians use to make bread is from Ukraine. Authorities say Tunisia has enough supplies to last three months.

In oil-rich but war-racked Libya, about 75 per cent of the wheat comes from Russia or Ukraine.

Morocco also relies heavily on the two warring nations for supplies.

“There won’t be any shortages – wheat shipments regularly arrive at Algiers port,” said an Algerian harbour official who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Mustapha. For the past decade, Algeria has set the price of a French-style baguette loaf of bread at six US cents. The energy-rich nation now says it intends to scrap subsidies on basic goods.

Morocco has wheat stockpiles to cover five months of consumption, having received most of its orders from Ukraine before the start of the war, the head of the federation of industrial mill owners said.

A French-language sign is placed on almost empty shelves of bread and other wheat-based food products that reads "one bag per person" at a supermarket in the Tunisian capital Tunis. AFP

Morocco’s procurement from Ukraine and Russia make up 25 and 11 per cent respectively of the country’s entire wheat imports. The North African nation is now looking to make up for the shortfall by buying more from France and looking to other countries, including Argentina, Poland and Germany, for supplies.

Morocco’s worst drought in 30 years, however, compromised this year’s harvest, leading traders to forecast much larger, and more expensive, imports.

Food prices are also surging in Libya, which imports about 75 per cent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine.

At a Tripoli wholesale market, shopper Saleh Mosbah blamed “unscrupulous merchants … They always wantto take advantage when there is a conflict.”

Shortages of staple commodities such as wheat could have political and security consequences in North Africa, where governments monitor price fluctuations closely, looking for any sign of ensuing popular discontent.

Hikes in the price of bread have often sparked unrest in the past.

In Sudan, a popular uprising initially sparked by an increase in bread prices in late 2018 soon morphed into demands for the removal of dictator Omar Al Bashir, who was ousted by his army generals in April 2019.

An attempt to remove bread subsidies in Egypt in 1977 led to deadly riots that forced president Anwar Sadat to back down.

Economic hardship, manifested by higher food prices, was also the cause or partial motive behind Arab uprisings in the past decade and more recently in Lebanon and Algeria.

Updated: March 14, 2022, 6:29 PM