Explainer: Why is Tunisia struggling with bread shortages?

Explainer: Why is Tunisia struggling with bread shortages?
Bread is a sensitive issue in Tunisia, where in 1983-1984 after a doubling of the price overnight, more than 150 people were killed during the bread riots.
5 min read
21 August, 2023
"There should be one type of bread for all Tunisians," said President Saied. [Getty]

Named 'Neemat Rebbi' (the Godseed), bread is crucial in the traditional Tunisian family diet and a long-standing symbol of political uprisings. Today it is in crisis, and authorities fear a new bread riot.

On 7 August, around 200 Tunisian bakers and pastry chefs participated in the first sit-in in a series of mobilisations to denounce the state's decision to ban 1,500 so-called "modern" bakeries from buying subsidised flour.

In Tunisia, there are two types of bakeries: traditional bakeries, which specialise only in traditional bread, and modern ones, which produce European-style bread and pastries.

There are 3,200 traditional bakeries, and they sell bread at the fixed price of 190 millimes (around US$0.07) for packages and 230 millimes for bread. This price has not changed since the 1980s.

Meanwhile, there are 1,500 modern bakeries. Those are not subject to the specified price as they use partially subsidised flour and fine semolina.

"Selling bread at varying prices between the rich and the poor in bakeries is a devious way to raise subsidies," President Kais Saied said in a video published by the Presidency's Facebook page last month.

"There should be one type of bread for all Tunisians," added Saied. 

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Subsidised flour and bread

Of all the varieties of bread available in Tunisia, only the baguette's price is fixed at 190 millimes (i.e. 0.13 euro cents), while its actual cost is currently 600 millimes. To cover this difference, the state subsidises the flour.

Tunis exports 95% of its needed wheat; it is then distributed to twenty mills around the country, transforming it into PS flour for bread, and PS-7 flour, used in baking.

The 3,200 operational traditional bakeries, which only make baguettes and rolls, receive PS flour and are subsidised up to the quantities delivered. 

Theoretically, they receive a quintal of flour for six dinars (roughly US$2), instead of 100 dinars (US$33), in addition to monthly financial support estimated at 2,124 dinars (US$708).

After Saied's greenlighted "the one bread for all people'' strategy, modern bakeries were prevented from accessing their quota of partially-subsidised flour. In response, they decided to stop making bread.

Days later, those same bakeries also stopped receiving non-subsidised flour and semolina from the state, which controls the supply of all essential goods in the country.

Facing the bans, over 100 bakeries closed their doors, with 18,000 employees set to lose their jobs. The queues in front of the opened ones grew longer, and social frustration spiked against a once again, failing strategy to solve the long-standing bread crisis in the North African state.

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Who is behind the bread crisis?

"Saied's hate speech pits Tunisians against each other. We are not rich. He talks about rich and poor, to divide us and starve us," Ali, an owner of a small modern bakery in Gafsa, told The New Arab.

Ali had to close his bakery facing the flour ban. he had already laid off two workers from his staff as, he said, he could not afford the expenses.

As for traditional bakeries, they are also struggling to cover their costs, not having received compensation for flour for nearly two years. 

In addition to acquiring the flour at a symbolic price, traditional bakeries are supposed to receive additional compensation from the state to maintain the fixed baguette price. However, bakeries say the state has not paid its dues for over a year.

Affiliated to two different employers' unions, traditional and modern bakers have been engaged in a heated war for several months, blaming each other for the bread crisis.

Yet, according to several economists, this "bread crisis" is actually linked to an insufficient supply of flour subsidised by the state.

"It is the state that has not bought enough cereals, so there is not enough flour, and therefore bread, because of a public finance crisis that it does not admit", Economist Ezzedine Saidane told AFP.

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In an economy built on low wages (the minimum wage is 480 dinars or 140 euros), the state has been centralising purchases of essential products since the 1970s to reinject them into the market at low prices.

Highly indebted, Tunis is short of cash, and suppliers want to be paid in advance, which forces it to spread out its supplies, according to experts. The Minister of Finance has yet to address the subsidiary budget. 

Nevertheless, President Saied believes "the crisis of bread and grain is not real and must not be repeated at the beginning of the school year.

"Some people are planning for it from now, and some are preparing for other crises," he added in a speech last week.

Also, Saied dismissed the Director-General of the Grain Bureau, Bashir Al-Kathiri, last week. The Grain Bureau is the institution in charge of supplying Tunisian and imported grains to the local market. 

Meanwhile, Tunisian authorities arrested Mohamed Bouanane, head of the National Chamber of Bakery Owners, on suspicion of monopoly and speculation of subsidised foodstuffs and money laundering.

On Sunday, 20 August, authorities announced the cancellation of the ban and resupplying flour to modern bakeries after most of them ceased operating in the past two weeks leading to a severe bread shortage.

Bread is a sensitive issue in Tunisia, where after a doubling of the price overnight, bread riots killed more than 150 people in 1983-1984.