TUNISIA – Tunisia is grappling with bread shortage following the government’s recent move to cut off subsidized flour allocations to privately owned bakeries.

Local news sources report that the immediate cause of the bread shortage is the inability of cash-strapped Tunisia, which is struggling to repay foreign lenders a decade’s worth of loans, to pay for wheat imports.

Additionally, the shortage comes as the country faces a constellation of crises: climate change-driven drought and fires, soaring public debt, Ukraine war price shocks, plummeting foreign currency reserves, and decades of bad policy.

Named ‘Neemat Rebbi’ (the Godseed), bread is crucial in the traditional Tunisian family diet and a long-standing symbol of political uprisings.

In August, eight cargo ships packed with wheat remained anchored off the port of Tunis, refusing to offload their cargo until they were paid by the government.

Worsening the crisis, economists say the import and marketing of wheat, like that of other goods in Tunisia, are highly centralized.

All wheat must go through the government Cereals Office, which purchases and imports the country’s grains and distributes them to mills, markets, and licensed bakeries as flour through a quota system. 

In August, the government banned some 1,500 privately owned bakeries that produce European-style breads and pastries from purchasing subsidized flour, ending a practice that had lasted for more than a decade.

Under current quotas and availability, bakeries are receiving 10% to 20% of their normal flour supplies

Yet only the Cereals Office can legally import grains. Those wishing to secure their own flour or semolina must resort to the marché noir – the black market lamented the affected bakers.

The privately owned bakeries went on strike on August 7 and demanded concessions from the commerce ministry, arguing the end of subsidies would force some of them to close.

Later the government announced that it would resupply flour to more than 1,000 non-subsidized bakeries after most of them ceased operating and help ease a bread shortage that has worsened after the verdict.

Experts say that to avert disaster, the government must loosen its grip on the economy and undertake economic reforms that post-revolution leaders avoided, such as selling off or restructuring government-owned companies, whose collective debt stands at 40% of the country’s gross domestic product.