Bread shortage hits Tunisia amid row over food subsidies

Country has struggled to reform its food market and depends on foreign imports of grain for nearly 60 per cent of demand

A man makes bread in a bakery in Tunis. AFP
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A bread shortage has struck Tunisia in recent weeks after the Tunisian ministry of commerce cut off subsidised flour allocations for about 1,500 modern bakeries.

The decision, issued in August, has now filtered through to the high street, affecting bakeries that produce pastries. It comes amid persistently high food prices in the wake of the Ukraine war, which has upturned global wheat markets.

The ministry explained that the decision came in response to the bakeries’ move to suspend subsidised bread baking as of August 1, in protest at reductions of subsidised flour.

“The decision falls within the ministry’s power to regulate the market’s supply chain, and it concerns all professionals across the different sectors that benefit from subsidised products…Namely when legal breaches are observed,” the Tunisian ministry of commerce said in a statement on August 3.

Before the decision, Tunisian President Kais Saied singled out modern unclassified bakeries for taking advantage of subsidised flour and semolina to produce bread that is more expensive and unaffordable for the majority of Tunisians, who rely on the subsidised baguette bread – a long French-inspired loaf commonly consumed in Tunisia – which has become scarce in recent months.

Mr Saied fired on Tuesday the general director of the Tunisian Cereal Office, Bashir Kethiri, and appointed Salwa Hadid Zouari as his successor.

According to local media reports, the Bakeries’ National Chamber president, Mohamed Bouanane, was detained on Thursday for subsidised product hoarding.

The decision came as Mr Saied vowed to prosecute what he called monopolies in the food sector, specifically alleged grain hoarders, whom Mr Saied blamed for the bread and wheat-based products shortage crisis.

Mr Saied also levelled accusations against political opponents, without providing evidence, saying they were behind the crisis in an attempt to create turmoil in the country.

Meanwhile, experts expect that 2023’s grain harvest will not exceed six million tonnes, only half of which could be utilised or distributed in the local market, compared to an eight million tonne average in the past decade.

The disappointing harvest is expected to worsen Tunisia’s dependence on grain imports in 2024, which already account for 50 to 60 per cent of the domestic market’s needs. Rising food import costs will put more pressure on the country’s dwindling foreign currency reserves.

For months, Tunisians have suffered from shortages of everyday basic food items including sugar, cooking oil, coffee, milk and butter.

Cereal-based products disappear from shelves more often because of the disruption to the global market caused by the conflict in Ukraine.

The shortages, which have affected subsidised products, are more visible because of a crisis in public finances, which stalled Tunisia’s food import payments.

The Tunisian government continues to seek a bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund to alleviate the economic crisis. But a growing political standoff between Mr Saied and his government has stalled momentum on the required reforms to access the loan.

President Saied sacked Prime Minister Najla Bouden in early August and appointed former central bank director, Ahmed Hachani, as her successor.

This move is perceived by many as an attempt from Mr Saied to narrow the gap between his vision and that of his government’s. Mr Hachani’s financial expertise background is another advantage that might help mitigate the current economic crisis.

Updated: August 17, 2023, 12:59 PM