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Tunisia faces dire food shortage, economic crisis

'We want to live': Tunisians exasperated over dire food shortage crisis
4 min read
15 September, 2022
Most of the goods running short are state-subsidised, which experts say reflects the mounting dysfunction in the state-administered purchasing and distribution of food.
A poster that reads, no more than one packet per customer, is displayed in front of an almost empty shelve of milk in a supermarket in Tunis. [Getty]

Tunisia's shops and supermarkets are facing a shortage of goods, from dairy to bottled water, as the cash-strapped country grapples with a mounting economic crisis.

For weeks now, several supermarkets in Tunis have been displaying half-empty shelves with signs restricting customers' ability to buy a specific amount of supplies to alleviate the worsening situation.

"Every week I need to drive to dozens of shops with my husband to find a few food essentials," Amna, a Tunisian teacher, told The New Arab.

Like Amna, many Tunisians have devoted their weekends to "food-hunting", driving or walking miles to buy a bottle of water or a litre of cooking oil. In many cases, they return empty-handed due to the skyrocketing prices.

"I could not buy anything today. Things that I could find were very expensive. Everything is getting expensive. We just want to live. e are not asking for a lot," Khaled, a Tunisian retired employee explained frustratedly to The New Arab.

Small shop owners are also struggling to afford food supplies for their clients, with many afraid to lose their businesses amid the crisis.

"I have been calling the milk suppliers for the past two days, but no answer. Shelves are empty and people can not afford other available goods. I barely sell anything during the day," Khalifa, an owner of a small shop in the Tunisian capital, said to The New Arab.

Several factories producing yoghurt, cake and biscuit, and soft drinks have reportedly halted production because of the shortage of sugar. Thousands of workers may be affected.

Most of the goods running short are state-subsidised, which experts say reflects the mounting dysfunction in the state-administered purchasing and distribution of food.

The food shortage is also causing a growing black market for subsidised goods. Stalls of bottled water, the rarest product to find in Tunisia currently, were pictured in a black market in Tataouine.

President Kais Saied has not spoken about the worsening crisis as of yet. However, in March, Saied blamed the food crisis mainly on food hoarders. 

He has also enacted a Decree-Law that will sentence those who hoarded state-subsidised products, such as cartels hoarding flour, to 10 to 30 years in prison. 

The decree also prevents the spread of "misinformation about food shortage." Amnesty International decried Saied's law as sabotage of Tunisians' freedom of speech on the countries' struggles.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Commerce has recorded hundreds of daily infringements and raids on hoarders of basic materials, such as subsidised cooking oil, sugar, flour and semolina.

Commentators argue that hoarding has worsened the crisis but contrary to the government's claims, it is not the sole cause.

The cash-strapped country is also struggling to pay for subsidies as it waits for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bail it out from a decade-long economic crisis.

According to the World Bank, public debt as of 2020 was 70 per cent above GDP, current debt levels could be much higher. Unemployment has soared to nearly 18.5% as of third-quarter 2021.

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Tunisia's economy has struggled since the Arab uprising of 2011. However, its problems have been greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, President Kais Saied's power grab and the undoing of state institutions and the fallout from the Ukraine war.

The Tunisian government has received two tranches of international help this summer, from the World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to fund grain purchases.

Crucially, talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a rescue package are flatlining.

The IMF put as conditions for any loan reducing subsidies and reducing public employees' wages, measures the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) categorically rejected considering that they would affect the purchasing power of citizens.

The recent criticism of Saied's politics by The US, the largest financial contributor to the IMF, may also hinder Tunis' chances of receiving the IMF aid package.