‘We are breathing through a straw’: Tunisians plagued by food shortages and price hikes

Key staples including flour, semolina and dairy have been missing from shelves for months at a time

Empty shelves in a major supermarket in Tunis, Tunisia. Ghaya Ben Mbarek / The National
Powered by automated translation

In drought-stricken Tunisia, months-long shortages of key food staples and the rising cost of living have left the population feeling desperate and uncertain about the future.

A worsening economic crisis, poor harvests and reduced imports have led to empty supermarket shelves and an increase in the cost of available goods.

Food prices rose by almost 12 per cent this year, according to Tunisia’s National Statistics Institute, with the highest increases reported for coffee (35 per cent), cooking oil (29 per cent) and lamb (28 per cent).

Although the overall inflation rate fell to 8.3 per cent in November – from 10.4 per cent in February – it remains high for food, and families have felt the pinch.

Over the past year, The National has tracked the cost of basic goods in the north African country – witnessing the price of 1kg of beef increasing by almost $1 since January – but, crucially, also reporting a shortage of rice and bread since March and April respectively.

Drought and reliance on imports pushes up prices

Continuing drought has affected Tunisia’s agriculture, increasing reliance on imports and putting further pressure on the country’s dwindling foreign currency reserves.

The war in Ukraine, which is heading towards its third year, has also pushed up global food prices.

Subsidised staple goods and medicines have become increasingly scarce, suggesting problems financing imports and driving up prices of non-subsidised, available products.

Tunisia’s struggling agricultural yield combined with a shortage of subsidised semolina and flour have led to a five-fold increase in the price of bread – the country’s main food staple.

Other food, including cooking oil, coffee, dairy products, sugar, rice, and pasta, have either completely disappeared from supermarket shelves or experienced periodic shortages and regular price hikes.

The shortages and subsequent price increases have led some suppliers to smuggle in goods from Algeria and Libya to sell in border towns.

Earlier this year, thousands of Tunisian trade unionists took to the streets to protest over their worsening economic woes and soaring cost of living.

Families now brace themselves for the disappearance of goods once taken as cornerstones of Tunisian dining.

Growing fear and stress

Husband and wife Chokri and Saadia own a small shop in Tunis selling mlawi, a thin flat bread made of fine semolina.

The National first spoke to the couple in May, when the government’s inability to pay for essential cereal supplies caused an extreme shortage of semolina and flour.

Seven months later, the couple continue to struggle to access basic foods, including cereal-based products and dairy.

“If you tell us adults that there is no milk, it’s fine, we can live without it. But what should I do when my four-year-old daughter wakes up in the middle of the night crying for a warm cup of milk?” Saadia asked in front of her family’s shop in a popular neighbourhood on the outskirts of El Aouina suburb.

Since semolina and flour supplies are still fluctuating, Saadia and her husband have resorted to cooking and selling other Tunisian dishes such as couscous and kafteji to keep their family fed.

One of the couple’s neighbours, Issam, who owns a grocery store, let out a frustrated laugh when asked how he had managed to keep going this year.

“We are breathing through a straw,” he said.

“This month I was not able to pay for rent on my shop until the 22nd. I usually need to do that on the first day of the month,” he added.

Despite his struggle and some of his suppliers increasing prices, Issam refuses to do the same.

“I cannot also raise prices like others do. I can see myself how I struggle in providing for my family, so I need to feel for others too,” he said.

To make ends meet, he has all but cut out expensive food, including red meat – only consuming chicken and buying fruit as a rare treat for his family.

“The other day I spent 100 dinars ($32.4) just by going to the poultry store and the fruit and vegetables vendor,” he said.

Dairy shortage threatens cafes

Dairy products have also been in short supply in recent weeks, with milk shortages reported throughout the country.

This scarcity has left coffee shop owners particularly hard-pressed, having already struggled with months-long patchy coffee availability that has deterred customers from visiting their once busy cafes.

“Buying drugs might be easier than buying milk these days,” said Hanen, who owns a popular coffee shop in L'Aouina.

She said she often resorts to begging and using her connections just to get a small quantity of milk to keep her business running.

Over the past year, Tunisians have also experienced an extreme increase in the cost of other basics, including rent, petrol and private healthcare, amid a public finance crisis.

Amid this stifling downturn, the government is struggling to reassure its increasingly frustrated population as families are forced to abandon even simple necessities.

Updated: December 29, 2023, 5:00 AM