Empty shelves and rising prices linked to the Ukrainian crisis are pushing Tunisians to the brink |
“There is no sugar, I have to travel a long way in a taxi to buy a kilo of sugar,” a frustrated woman explains at a market in Kairouan, a city a few hours south of the Tunisian capital.
“Prices are rising! The poor can no longer afford anything. It’s like the world is on fire,” another woman explains, opening her purse to pay for a sack of tomatoes heaped on a wooden cart by the side of the road.
Nodding his head in agreement, the stall owner takes her money and makes a surprising, if cautious handling. “Please make it easy for us to migrate across the sea so we can leave,” he says.
Though the elderly shopper scoffs at the idea – “He wants to drown! He wants to drown! – For many young Tunisians, leaving the country in search of work and security is a common topic of conversation.
This is despite the fact that in recent years many thousands of people have died trying to cross the Central Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe in unsafe boats, and regular television news reporting another missing person or family.
“I think the crisis in Ukraine has again raised the issue of the difficult choices that people have to make on a daily basis, because people who are forced to leave their homes, people who are forced to leave their country, do not take this decision lightly,” says Safa Mseli, representative of the International migration organizations (IOM).
For many Tunisians, purchasing basic food remains a challenge, although more than 85,000 metric tons of Ukrainian wheat arrived in Tunisian ports in the two months following Black Sea Grain Initiative Started to work, said on Thursday the Joint Coordination Center in Odessa.
The agreement has been described as a “beacon of hope” for the UN General Secretary António Guterres at the signing ceremony of the Black Sea Grain Initiative on July 27 in Istanbul with the participation of representatives of Russia and Ukraine.
Since August 1, 240 ships have sailed from Ukrainian ports with 5.4 million tons of grain and other food products.
Flour is plentiful at a huge flour mill in the Tunisian capital as workers stand under a conveyor belt that transports a seemingly endless supply of semolina packed in large, sturdy plastic bags.
As the sacks begin to fall, the men take turns grabbing them and loading them into a large flatbed truck until it fills up, their faces covered in fine white flour.
The scene is hardworking, but the mill is not as busy as it should be, thanks in no small part to the impact of the conflict in Ukraine on the decline in Black Sea grain exports and its role in exacerbating existing economic uncertainty.
“Now we are not in a crisis, a crisis always happens,” says Redissi Radhuan, chief mill operator in La Compagnie Tunisienne de Semoulerie. “When we look for wheat, we don’t find anything. There is not as much wheat as before.”
“It’s like hunting without ammo”
At a wholesale store in Mornag, a town on the outskirts of Tunisia, shopper Samia Zwabi knows all about shortages and rising prices.
She explains UN news that she must borrow money or buy items on credit for her grocery store, assuming she can find them at all. Like many parents, the fact that it’s the start of the school year is an added concern.
“We are half-working,” says Samia Zwabi, listing a wish list that includes milk, sugar, vegetable oil and fruit juice. “When a client comes, he cannot get everything he needs. Clients ask for what I don’t have. We don’t have options. We must be able to work to feed our children.”
Echoing this report, wholesaler Walid Halfawi’s main headache is a shortage of vegetable oil, as evidenced by his empty warehouses. Another growing concern is the number of customers paying on credit, he tells us, waving a thick wad of handwritten IOUs.
“If a grocery store owner comes here for vegetable oil and finds it, he will automatically buy pasta, tomatoes, couscous and other products,” says the married father of three. “If he doesn’t find it, he won’t buy anything … It’s like hunting in the forest with a gun, but there are no cartridges. What can you do?”
From her modest one-story home in the city of Kairouan, Najwa Selmi supports her family by baking traditional handmade bread cakes known as tabuna twice in the morning and once in the evening.
The process is laborious and time consuming: a batch of eight flat buns takes about 15 minutes to shape with semolina flour, water, yeast and a dash of olive oil.
Once cooked, Najwa wets the surface of the soft patties and tosses them inside a concrete oven, which is fired outside with firewood. She writhes in pain as she removes them with her burnt hands, once she’s sure they’re cooked.
The bread is delicious and Najwa has regular customers, but getting a regular supply of flour isn’t easy, she says.
“My youngest daughter will start school soon, and I haven’t bought anything for her yet: no bag, no books, no school supplies, no clothes,” she says. “If for some reason I have to stop working… or if I get sick, we don’t know what the future holds, my family will starve, what will they eat?
“Where will they get the money from? We have no other alternative source of income.”
In the vibrant Tunisian district of Ettadhamen, bakery owner Mohamed Lounissi speaks openly about the stresses and challenges of keeping his business afloat due to a chronic shortage of flour caused by the war in Ukraine.
“This is a big problem for us, if I order eight tons, they give me only one ton. They say that you need to wait, and then when I tell them that I can’t work and I can close, they say: “Okay, close it, it’s none of our business!”
For olive grove and grain farmer Ines Massoudi, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February this year is just another series of problems she cannot control after five years of unrelenting rain and two years of economic uncertainty caused by COVID-19 pandemic.
In particular, she worries that everything she needs for her 50-hectare plot in Beja is now more expensive and scarce than before the war.
Not to mention having to pay for more expensive grain to plant, no pesticides to treat mild wheat fungus, along with growth-stimulating fertilizers – a key Russian export before the war – Ines’ crop could drop by as much as 60 percent.
“My farm is part of the world, and she feels it when something happens outside,” she says of her 50-hectare plot, where olive trees fade into the distance in a green haze.
On the eve of the sowing season, “everyone hesitates,” Ines continues, “because today the cost of sowing wheat is equivalent to the cost of a car or a new apartment … In addition, there is a crisis in Ukraine, due to which grain prices have risen. , as well as the prices of agrochemicals and fertilizers, which have become very expensive.”
Back in Tunisia, in the bustling district of Ettadhamen, baker Mohamed Lounissi admits he’s having a hard time. “It’s a daily challenge,” he explains.
“There are no goods and raw materials at all; it (everything) is too little: no flour, no sugar, no oil all the time, all the time out of stock, along with the rise in prices, the prices have risen terribly, they are high.”
Standing in front of a stuffy bread oven and fearing he could lose his livelihood if he can’t pay his mortgage, Mohamed admits that the stress of running a business in the current situation is getting heavy for him. “If I don’t get raw materials, I won’t be able to work, and I feel like I have a big responsibility in terms of paying the workers.”
In the open-air pantry, Mohamed shows us his meager supply of wheat flour, a small pile of sacks barely knee-high. As he leaves, he carefully locks the door, quietly chiding himself for not doing it sooner.
He says that getting the precious ingredient “is a big problem”. “If I order eight tons, they only give me one ton. They say that you need to wait, and then when I tell them that I can’t work and I can close, they say: “Okay, close it, it’s none of our business!”