TUNIS — History teaches us that in 2010-2011, the rise in commodity prices, particularly wheat, was one of the main causes of the uprisings that spread across the Arab world.
Today, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is testing many global economies dependent on wheat imports, especially in North Africa. This begs the question: Could there be a second “Arab Spring?”
More than a month after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Alexander Zolotov, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Tunisia, reaffirmed Moscow’s desire to “continue to contribute to Tunisia’s food and energy security”.
Energy expert Mustapha Haddad points to Tunisia’s “strong dependence abroad” for energy, with around 57% of the country’s electricity needs coming from imports, as well as 97% of the electricity mix depending on natural gas. .
For lack of being able to deploy an operational emergency plan and put in place a crisis strategy, Tunisia can only count on Algerian gas. The demand in Tunisia is growing and will have to adapt to the availability of gas and the saturation of the gas pipeline as well as to a cost which was not foreseen in the initial budget.
“Winter is over in Europe, except surprise, we have passed the milestone of 2022 but we will have to organize the negotiations and the programming for 2023”, specifies an engineer from the Tunisian Electricity and Gas Company (STEG) .
What is true for energy is also true for grains and oilseeds. With annual demands of up to 1.5 million tons of wheat, 1 million tons of barley and half a million tons of durum wheat, Tunisia depends on the international market to cover 50% of its consumption and depends of Ukraine for 40% of common wheat.
The current shortage of flour, semolina and other derivatives is mainly due to the appetite of the Libyan market, which is drying up the availability of these products, which are subsidized by the state and subject to a black market between the two countries.
A strain on agribusiness, especially grains, reflects the growing trend in global markets towards post-COVID recovery and threatens the country’s food security.
Tunisia had succeeded, despite its dried up public finances, in securing its supplies at the end of 2021. But that was without the effects of the war in Ukraine and the difficulty of anticipating a probable increase in the cost of transport and the availability of nitrogen fertilizers. , produced in Ukraine and Russia.
With a shortage of funds and a war thousands of kilometers away, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, ranks Tunisia among the countries most at risk of famine: “It seems that we have learned nothing from the 2008 crisis which had weakened our countries and social balances, and fueled the revolts which occurred a few years later”, declared an FAO official. “The question of redefining the place of agriculture in the scheme of public policies is essential.
Since the beginning of the war, the price of many foods has reached unprecedented levels. The price of bread, the staple food of Egyptians, rose by 50%, with the price per tonne of flour rising from 8,500 pounds to 11,000 pounds ($465 to $602). If this increase is partly due to the Russian-Ukrainian war, some accuse traders of wanting to take advantage of the conflict to speculate on prices.
“Egypt is one of the main countries affected by the war. It is heavily dependent on Russia and Ukraine for the import of major goods, including wheat and corn,” said Elhami al-Merghani, a member of the political bureau of the opposition Socialist Popular Coalition party. Young Africa.
Egypt being one of the biggest wheat importers, bought 12.4 million tons of wheat in 2021, 80% of which comes from Russia and Ukraine.
Fearing a popular uprising, the government tried to reassure its population of 103 million. Campaigns have also been launched to hunt down traders who hoard staples like flour. The armed forces, the police and the government announced that they were supplying the market with a large quantity of food at low prices through public sales. The government also provided a quantity of flour to the private market to help stabilize prices and announced a freeze on bread prices.
The state also banned the export of five foods, including pasta, lentils, beans and wheat. While the government hopes that local wheat production will cover the year’s needs, it has forced farmers to sell 60% of their harvest to the state.
There is a palpable impatience against the economic policies pursued by the regime, which have harmed the poor and middle classes.
Economics researcher Abdel Khalek Farouk, president of the independent Al-Nil Center for Economic and Strategic Studies, said anger was mounting over rising prices, especially of bread. “There is a palpable impatience against the economic policies pursued by the regime, which have harmed the poor and the middle classes. The poverty rate of the population has now reached 60%. The regime is obviously afraid of the repercussions of this crisis, in particular a popular revolt. »
Anger was already rising in the country, but the Russian-Ukrainian conflict risks aggravating the situation. In early February, 23 days before the Russian invasion, protests against high prices erupted across the country, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch, in power only since September.
For months, inflation, currently at +4.7%, has been eroding the purchasing power of Moroccans.
All prices have increased: +14% for mineral water, +5% for oil, +6% for flour, while the monthly minimum wage is around 240 euros. In question: two years of pandemic, sluggish economic growth (0.7%), a very bad drought, coupled with global inflation … and now, the war in Ukraine.
On March 16, the price of fuel reached a record level: 11.93 dirhams (1.11 euros) per liter for diesel, 14.18 dirhams (1.32 euros) per liter for gasoline. Unheard of in Morocco, Internet users immortalized the event with their smartphones.
With the arrival of the month of Ramadan, when Moroccans increase their food consumption – and wheat in particular – national agricultural production has decreased by 75%. In recent years, the country has experienced a series of severe droughts, each longer and more intense than the next due to the rainfall deficit. Since 2018, cereal production has been divided by three, while the dams do not exceed a filling rate of 30%. he country is dependent on its agricultural sector, which represents 14% of its GDP.
Each year, Morocco imports between 60 and 75 million quintals of cereals from the United States, France, Canada and Ukraine. Ukrainian wheat imports account for 26%, but the world price per ton of wheat has increased by 21.3% since last year.
Another pillar of the national economy is tourism, which has been on the rise since the borders reopened after its pandemic closure. But the question remains, until when? While several industry experts say Morocco could reach pre-pandemic tourist numbers (13 million) before 2023, soaring oil prices could limit the number of travelers.
If in the following months Akhannouch’s government fails to maintain stability, growing social unrest could become a reality.
Already facing a dire economic situation, Tunisia could also face a shortage of wheat and a spike in grain prices if the Russian-Ukrainian conflict continues.
“I don’t have semolina today but you can find it in other stores,” reassures the manager of a grocery store in Kouba to a young woman worried about not finding the products on the shelves.
In Algeria, flour or semolina are not lacking, but the population shows signs of anguish by stocking up and emptying the shelves of grocery stores on the eve of Ramadan. If the country has not yet succumbed to panic, it is because it has a secure stock sufficient to cover domestic needs until the end of the year, assures the Ministry of Agriculture.
Algeria is inevitably impacted by the war in Ukraine
After a poor harvest in 2021, with a 38% drop, Algerian imports of cereals, mainly soft wheat, increased by 25%. As Africa’s second-largest wheat consumer and fifth-largest grain importer behind Egypt, China, Indonesia and Turkey, Algeria can only be impacted by the war in Ukraine, says Mokrane Nouad, consultant in the agri-food sector.
“Algeria can benefit from the explosion in the price of oil, but being a net importer of food products, the prices of which have also increased, shortages are possible,” Nouad said. Young Africa. “Ukraine represents 50% of world production. Their customers will fall back on Canada. European countries will prefer the option of trading among themselves. Prices will rise and we will reach a point where demand can no longer be met, even though we are only at the beginning of the crisis.
Algeria imports soft wheat from France, Canada, Germany, the United States, Spain, Mexico and since 2021, from Russia. Russia and Ukraine also account for 20% of world exports of corn and 30% of barley, the two main cereals used in the livestock sector.
Nouad says it is time for countries in the region to: “develop strategic products in order to ensure our food security and preserve our sovereignty”.
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