How the Global Wheat Shortage Looks in Tunisia—During Ramadan

Tunisian bread / credit: Sabrine Smidi / Pinterest
Tunisian bread / credit: Sabrine Smidi / Pinterest

TUNIS—Around 2:30 p.m., in the middle of the week, a dozen people lined up in front of a bakery in the district of Le Bardo, west of the Tunisian capital of Tunis. Some are daily customers. Many had gotten used to getting in line since Ramadan began in early April, though the people waiting were not the multitude they saw in the first days of the holy month.

“Before, and at the start of Ramadan, I would find some bakeries closed or running out of flour—now it’s better,” Mounir, a driving instructor in his late 50s, noted, speaking to Toward Freedom. “Still, people are going to shop earlier than usual to be sure they find enough bread.”

For him, the main problem is those buyers who are hoarding loaves, leaving little for the others.

Heavily dependent on grain imports and suffering its worst financial crisis, Tunisia is struggling with the global wheat shortage brought on by the fallout of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine.

That’s why Ramadan, known in the Islamic calendar to be a holy month of fasting—but also of feasting and consumption—is looking different this year.

Tunisians shopping for bread in La Bardo, west of Tunis / credit: Alessandra Bajec
Tunisians shopping for bread in La Bardo, west of Tunis / credit: Alessandra Bajec

Global Wheat Shortage Drives Up Prices

Tunisia is one of the predominantly Muslim countries throughout north Africa and west Asia that has been exposed to the impact of the conflict in Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are the world’s largest and fifth-largest exporters of wheat, respectively. Tunisia relies on the countries for more than half of its annual wheat imports.

The situation has been aggravated by the economic crisis that the north African country has been passing through for more than a decade, as well as by a rapidly-impending public-finance crisis, which appears difficult to avert.

With a fragile economy plagued by high public debt, rampant inflation and unemployment, Tunisia’s funds are being depleted. Since December 2019, the Tunisian government has no longer been able to import on credit and has been forced to pay cash for each transaction due to its financial instability, which has led to foreign operators often demanding advance payment for fear of a payment default. As the country’s funds dwindle, suppliers hold goods offshore until payments are green-lighted.

Analysts have warned that Tunisia may face a social explosion due to scarce wheat and high prices. Inflation rose in March to 7.2 percent and it is likely to continue rising as the war in Ukraine drives up prices of food like grains, as well as oil and fertilizers. Ukraine and Russia, which account for 29 percent of global wheat exports, are the main suppliers of grains to dozens of countries in north Africa and west Asia. Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey are among the most vulnerable countries to disruptions in wheat imports in the region. Egypt is the world’s top wheat importer with 85 percent coming from Russia and Ukraine. Tunisia relies on Ukraine for 50 percent to 60 percent of its wheat imports. Lebanon imports 60 percent from Ukraine. Turkey is also a big spender on Russian and Ukrainian wheat, with 85 percent coming from those two countries. Morocco is less dependent on wheat imports, with Ukrainian and Russian wheat representing 36 percent of its imports. However, it is currently experiencing its worst drought in 30 years, leading to food price hikes that will eventually push the government to raise grain imports.

Karabekir Akkoyunlu, a lecturer in politics of the Middle East at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, said on Qatar-based TV network Al Jazeera that Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon are at great risk from a rise in prices and a surge in demand. Meanwhile, food policy expert David Laborde told German public broadcaster Deutsche Wellen that people won’t immediately feel the rising cost of wheat, given that many regional countries have subsidies in place. Governments could start rationing or increasing the cost of wheat-related products at some point, which could spark social unrest.

Tunisians line for bread in local bakeries during Ramadan / credit: Alessandra Bajec
Tunisians line for bread in local bakeries during Ramadan / credit: Alessandra Bajec

The Search for Bread

“I do my bread shopping after I finish work at 2 p.m., so I have time to look around. If I don’t find the quantity I want at one bakeshop, I go to another one,” Tareq, a 44-year-old clothing salesman, told Toward Freedom while holding a bag with ordinary baguettes and flatbread. For the first time, he plans to make sweets for the Eid (“feast”) celebration, since buying them would cost him a lot.

Bread, which Tunisians notoriously consume in abundance, has a symbolic value on the tables of Tunisian families. Statistics from Tunisia’s National Institute of Consumption (INC) showed that in 2018, average bread consumption per person was 74 kilograms (163 pounds) a year.

Fifty-eight-year-old Tili, a public sector worker who’s been buying from the same bakery for long, pointed out the wheat crisis is political. “Bread is always available,” he told Toward Freedom. He hinted some of the people who complain about diminishing grain supplies are implicitly taking a stance against Tunisian President Kais Saied’s handling of the scarcity.

On March 9, Saied announced that he was launching an anti-speculation campaign. He then issued on March 20 a new law (Decree-Law 2022-14) introducing heavy penalties for speculating on goods. These penalties range from 10 years in prison to a life sentence, including for the deliberate spread of “false or incorrect information” that would cause consumers to refrain from buying food or that would disrupt the supply of goods to markets, thereby causing price spikes.

Since then, the media has reported on police conducting raids on warehouses full of sacks of flour, semolina and other food.

Saied and government officials have blamed the delays and shortages on market speculators, labor union strikes, and a conspiracy by his opponents.

For several weeks, long queues for bread have been a common sight in different parts of Tunisia. The situation seems less critical these days amid reports of authorities pumping shares of flour into the market to limit shortfalls recorded at the beginning of April.

In normal times, bakeshops stay open throughout the week during Ramadan and availability of bread has never been an issue. But in the current period, they are either forced to ration the bread production or cut their working times because supplies are more limited. Some have raised their prices. Several others have even shut down due to the lack of semolina and flour.

Traditional bakery, fresh bread from the bakery in Hergla, Tunisia / credit: Faiza Affes / Wikipedia
Traditional fresh bread from a bakery in Hergla, Tunisia / credit: Faiza Affes / Wikipedia

‘We Must Keep Producing’

Coming out of another bakery in Le Bardo, Altra Cosa, 22-year-old student Imen complained about the wait time to buy bread. “I go to any bakeshop where I see the least longest queue. I normally have to queue up for half an hour or longer,” she lamented, speaking to Toward Freedom. “I sometimes can’t find bread at all. Then I have to go wherever I manage to.” In her view, market speculators hiding state-subsidized goods to sell at a higher price later are mainly those causing supply difficulties.

Ahmad, manager of Altra Cosa, said the government needs to fairly distribute raw materials among bakeries. “There are those that are delivered supplies of flour, sold for a price, others for a different [price],” he told Toward Freedom. “That should change.”

Despite the challenges, he stressed his bakery has been operating steadily in the recent period. “Bread will be always available here,” he vowed. “We must keep producing—otherwise, there will be a revolution.” Noureddine, one of the bakers, observed that the amounts of flour the state supplies to their bakeshop varies and, since the scarcity of cereals began, the staff have been carefully handling production volumes within set limits to suit the customer demand. To make sure subsidized bread is available for everyone, they sell no more than five baguettes per person.

“We’re making the same types of bread—regular and special—and haven’t changed prices,” the baker told Toward Freedom. “The government even asked us to make loaves of lesser weight, so [as] to ration the quantity of bread produced, though we don’t do that.”

A street cake vendor, Samir, stood nearby with his cart. He claimed wheat-based products could be found more easily now, in spite of the ruptures in the supply chain. He also alluded to Saied’s crackdown on goods speculators, intermediaries who hold on to stocks of foodstuffs to force prices up.

The Run-Up to the Wheat Crisis

Since December, labor union officials at the port of Sfax have reportedly said several grain shipments have not been unloaded because the state struggles to pay for them.

Households across Tunisia rushed to stock up on flour and semolina, as well as other staples, as food prices started to rise with the advent of the war.

Based on a poll conducted by Tunisia-based Insights consultancy, between January 30 and February 8, 89 percent of Tunisians interviewed consumed bread daily and only 47 percent said bread was always available.

A video from the city of Sidi Bouzid that circulated on social media showed a crowd climbing aboard a truck delivering semolina.

Meanwhile, angry bakers in the city of Ben Arous, south of Tunis, threatened a strike in mid-March.

By the time Ramadan kicked off, crowds gathering outside bakeshops had become a regular occurrence. On April 2, the head of Kairouan Modern Bakery Group, Abdelbaki Abdellaoui, stated 17 modern bakeries (those that trade mainly non-subsidized bread along with a little subsidized bread) had shut down in the governorate of Kairouane, due to the lack of semolina and flour. He had requested the regional director of trade to intervene and provide the region’s share of semolina. The next day, residents staged a sit-in protest in front of the city’s municipal market to demand provision of primary staples.

‘We’ve Only Heard Promises’

The Kairouan bakery group’s president criticized the monthly 10,000-kilogram (22,000 pounds) allocation of flour the government had set for bakeries “very limited,” as he suggested the load would last 20 to 25 days, forcing bakers to stop production until the next month.

“We’ve just heard promises of increased loads from the minister of trade, and are still waiting to receive them,” Abdellaoui sighed, while speaking to Toward Freedom.

He mentioned one major problem specific to Kairouan is the lack of  wheat flour mills, which makes it logistically complicated for flour delivery to bakeshops in the region, compared to those operating in other regions.

Abdellaoui anticipated that the wheat challenge will be bigger after Ramadan, when Tunisians will be returning to daily meals after observing a month of fasting.

Mohamed Jammali, president of Tunisia’s Modern Bakery Group, reported that a dozen modern bakeries closed their doors since the beginning of Ramadan because of the penury of basic wheat staples. Modern Bakery Group is part of Confédération des Entreprises Citoyennes de Tunisie (CONECT), an employers’ union organization that brings together private and public enterprises in various sectors of the Tunisian economy.

Early this month, the Tunisian union of bakers denounced continuous shortages of flour and semolina for more than four months in all regions, and called on the government to provide the necessary amounts of grains to ensure a provision of bread to citizens.

“10,000 kg of flour a month for bakers is not acceptable,” Jammali complained while talking to Toward Freedom. He added that while some bakeries getting subsidized flour, others are selling ordinary bread at a higher cost because they must use grain bought privately.

The head of the national bakery group appealed for the inclusion of bakers’ associations in relevant discussions at the government level, noting that they have been side-lined by the cabinet.

“We want to make decisions in coordination with the Ministry of Trade,” Jammali demanded. “We should take part in setting bread prices and regulating the bakery sector.”

Although the state has not raised flour prices, the price of bread in some non-subsidized bakeries has gone up by 25 percent in the last few months. A baguette costs only 190 millimes (6 U.S. cents) because it’s being heavily funded by the government in an effort to maintain social stability. However, it can sell for 250 millimes (8 U.S. cents) or more in non-subsidized bakeshops, where they cannot get enough subsidized flour or choose to lift their prices for more profits. Before hiking prices, bakers tend to reduce the shape and weight first.

A container ship / credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service / Flickr
A container ship / credit: NOAA’s National Ocean Service / Flickr

Running Out of Bread

A bakeshop at Tunis central market appeared moderately busy by 3 p.m. on a Friday. Two women in their early 20s were waiting outside while their father was buying bread. One of them noticed the line is usually long during the week.

“I come here regularly to get a baguette, I prefer it and it’s the cheapest. Other types can cost 500 millimes ($0.16) up to one dinar even,” she told Toward Freedom. The dinar is the Tunisian currency. “Prices of special breads rose before Ramadan after the Russia-Ukraine war, and have risen again recently.”

“The reserves of cereals already decreased before the war—now, they are insufficient,” her sister commented to Toward Freedom. “Tunisia has imported more than in the past years, and it’s struggling to cover import costs because of the economic crisis.”

The conversation abruptly ended as their father came out with fresh bread in hand and made it clear it was time to leave, preventing this reporter from catching the women’s names. As mentioned earlier, Saied’s law criminalizes the deliberate spread of “false or incorrect information” regarding food scarcity.

Walking out of the bakery, Chaima, a 30-something nursing assistant, carried a bag with three baguettes. “In Ramadan time, people normally eat a lot of traditional bread, but not this year,” she remarked, addressing Toward Freedom, and continued, “We don’t have enough flour at the moment. The country is running out of money. It can’t pay [for] its imports.”

Tunisians consume less subsidized bread during the Muslim month. Instead, they typically opt for special bread from a range of types that are today becoming less affordable for the average person.

Hamed, owner of the market’s bakeshop, explained that until the week before the supply of flour distributed to his shop by the state was lesser than the demand making it very hard to satisfy customers. Then, he said, the government allocated “an extra 15% share approximately” for bakeries though he specified that many of those based in the city’s suburbs are still counting on short supplies.

“Things are manageable now. With the share of flour we had before, we often had to close at 11 a.m., because we had finished our stocks by then,” the business owner told Toward Freedom.

In the last period, people seeking to buy the affordable baguette have resorted to the more expensive bread when no other option was available for fear of being left without bread.

Glancing at the price list stuck inside his bakery, Hamed pointed to a variety of loaves ranging from olive and barley, 500 millimes, to cereals, 800 millimes (26 U.S. cents) and semolina-made bread, 1 TND (33 U.S. cents).

“Except for the one-dinar bread, which we increased by 200 millimes, our prices are the same since last year. We’ve also been selling our baguette at 190 millimes for 15 years,” he went on to say.

‘Disruption Originates From the Top’

Besides mentioning diminishing government spending power, which has caused cash flow problems, Hamed hinted at the profitable smuggling trade that runs from Tunisian milling facilities into neighboring Libya.

Talking to independent Tunis-based media collective Inkyfada, Tunisian Customs spokesman Haithem Zaned said the largest part of subsidized foodstuffs (especially wheat products) that customs services seized [as part of the recent anti-speculation efforts] were intended for smuggling. He specified that the smuggling trade is primarily bound to Libya.

“There is clearly a problem in the supply chain, and the disruption originates from the top,” Houssem Saad of ALERT, an association campaigning to end Tunisia’s windfall economy that benefits influential business families, said to Toward Freedom. He referred to the government’s Office of Cereals, which is responsible for imports of grains that are then unevenly distributed through a system of quotas among milling companies making pasta and other wheat-based products.

Saad estimated 70 percent of grain quotas go to flour mills that have factories producing pasta, couscous and other goods, leaving the remaining small portion to mills that trade flour and semolina only.

These manufacturers purchase subsidized wheat or flour from the Office of Cereals, he explained, part of which is diverted to make products to export to different countries, especially Libya, where they resell the raw materials for a much higher price.

Minister of Commerce Fadhila Rabhi, reportedly highlighted the need to fight speculation and embezzlement of staple foods (such as semolina and flour) by moving from a system of subsidized prices to one based on compensation via direct transfers by 2023. She also was quoted in local media as saying: “Some people have interest in perpetuating instability to profit through smuggling. Subsidized Tunisian couscous (crushed durum wheat semolina) was even found on the black market in Niger, Sudan and Chad.”

“It’s officially a state monopoly where rentiers, a handful of milling companies, are given a privilege,” Saad argued. “Moreover, the government’s policy is not aimed at encouraging domestic production—instead, it’s based on imports.”

The Ministry of Commerce stated to local media last year that it will use “all necessary mechanisms to confront the phenomenon of monopoly and parallel markets.” This came at a time when prices of most food products had increased.

Tunisia has been increasingly importing cereals. According to data from the Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fisheries (UTAP), 1 million hectares of arable land were used last year for cereal production, compared to 1.2 million hectares in 2020. The union forecasts the amount will decrease even more this year.

In referring to the country’s political instability and financial deterioration, Saad highlighted Tunisia is currently facing problems in paying foreign suppliers and is systematically paying late. He estimated that ships carrying cereals can be held unloaded for four to five weeks, waiting for the Office of Cereals to negotiate a high-interest loan with a private bank, at a cost of between $15,000 and $20,000 per day. That, in turn, pushes the price of imports up. At this pace, importing cereals is likely to get more and more costly for Tunisia.

The Office of Cereals admitted in a statement it was delayed in paying six ships at Tunisian ports that were carrying grains in December. However, the office also warned that false reports about payment issues “can be exploited by suppliers to increase the prices of imported cereals and to impose new exorbitant conditions in calls for bids” and that “such [a] situation will generate additional expenses in cash for the state’s treasury.”

Although the Ministry of Agriculture assured current wheat reserves should last until the June harvest, concern remains about the government’s ability to secure sufficient supplies. Meanwhile, on March 11, the Office of Cereals failed to conclude a deal for May’s wheat imports because it didn’t have the financing in place.

This reporter was unable to reach the Office of Cereals, the Ministry of Commerce and Saeid’s office for comment during Ramadan.

Tunisia hopes to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a financial rescue package in return for deep economic reforms, including cuts in state subsidies that keep bread accessible to the population.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist specializing in West Asia and North Africa. Between 2010 and 2011, she lived in Palestine. She was based in Cairo from 2013 to 2017, and since 2018 has been based in Tunis.