“There is no sugar, I have to take a taxi very far to buy a kilogram of sugar,” a woman explains in frustration, at a market in Kairouan, a city a few hours drive south of the capital, Tunis.
“The price went up! The poor can no longer afford to buy anything. The world is on fire,” another woman explained, as she opened her purse to pay for a bag full of tomatoes, piled on a wooden cart by the side of the road.
Nodding his head in agreement, the stall owner took his money and made an astonishing, if wise, appeal. “Please, make it easy for us to migrate across the sea, so we can go,” he said.
Even though the old customer scoffed 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 frequent topic of conversation.
This is despite the fact that thousands of people have died trying to cross the Central Mediterranean Sea from North African countries to Europe in unsafe boats in recent years, and regular TV news reports announcing other missing persons – or families – at sea.
“I think what the crisis in Ukraine has brought, are difficult choices that people have to make every day, because people who are forced to leave their homes, people who are forced to leave their countries, don’t take those decisions lightly,” said Safa Msehli, a spokeswoman. International Organization for Migration (IOM).
For many Tunisians, it remains a challenge to procure staples, even though more than 85,000 metric tons of Ukrainian wheat have arrived at Tunisian ports in the two months since the Black Sea Grain Initiative came into action, the Joint Coordination Center in Odesa, said on Thursday.
The agreement was described as a “beacon of hope” by UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the signing ceremony of the Black Sea Item Initiative on 27 July in Istanbul, with representatives from Russia and Ukraine.
Since August 1, 240 ships have sailed from Ukrainian ports with about 5.4 million metric tons of grain and other foodstuffs.
Spread the burden
In a large factory in the Tunisian capital, there is plenty of flour, as workers stand under conveyor belts hauling a seemingly endless supply of semolina, packed into large, heavy-duty plastic sacks.
As the sacks began to fall, the men took them in turns and loaded them into the large truck with the bed flat to the brim, their faces covered in fine white flour.
The atmosphere is bustling, but the factory isn’t as lively as it should be, mainly because of the impact of the Ukraine conflict on cutting grain exports from the Black Sea, and its role in accentuating existing economic uncertainty.
“Right now, we’re not in a crisis, crises always happen,” said Redissi Radhouane, chief plant operator at La Compagnie Tunisienne de Semoulerie. “When we looked for wheat, we didn’t find it. The grain isn’t as abundant as it used to be.”
‘It’s like hunting without bullets’
At a grocery store in Mornag, a town on the outskirts of Tunis, customer Samia Zwabi knows all about shortages and rising prices.
He explained to UN News that he should borrow money or buy items on credit for his grocery store, assuming he can find them in the first place. Like many parents, the fact that it is the start of the school year is of additional concern.
“We are working at half capacity,” says Samia Zwabi, who puts out a wish list that includes milk, sugar, cooking oil and fruit juice. “When a client comes in, he can’t get all the basics. The client asked for something I didn’t have. We have no choice. We have to be able to work to feed our children.”
Echoing that message, wholesaler Walid Khalfawi’s main headache is the lack of available cooking oil, as his empty warehouse shows. Another growing concern is the number of customers paying on credit, he told us, waving a thick wad of handwritten IOU pieces.
“If a grocery owner comes here to buy cooking oil and finds it, he will automatically buy pasta, tomatoes, couscous and other products,” said the married father of three. “If he doesn’t find it, he won’t buy anything…It’s like going to the forest to hunt with your rifle but you don’t have any bullets. What can you do?”
From her humble one-story house in the city of Kairouan, Najwa Selmi supports her family in making traditional handmade bread known as “tabouna”, twice in the morning and once in the evening.
A laborious and time-consuming process, eight flatbread rolls take about 15 minutes to form from semolina flour, water, yeast, and a drop of olive oil.
When it was ready, Najwa moistened the soft surface of the bread and put it in a concrete oven filled with firewood outside. He winced in pain as he took them out with his charred hand, after he was satisfied that they were cooked.
The bread is good and Najwa has loyal customers, but it’s not easy to get a regular supply of flour, he told us.
“My youngest daughter is about to start school and I haven’t bought her anything yet, no bag, no books, no school stationery, no clothes,” he said. “If for any reason I have to stop working… or if I get sick we don’t know what will happen in the future, my family will be hungry, what will they eat?
“Where will they get the money from? We have no other alternative source of income.”
In the bustling Tunis neighborhood of Ettadhamen, bakery owner Mohamed Lounissi is open about the pressures and challenges of keeping his business going, thanks to the chronic flour scarcity caused by the war in Ukraine.
“For us, it’s a big deal, if I order eight tons they only give me one ton. They say you have to wait and then when I tell them I can’t work and I’m probably going to close, they say, ‘Okay, shut up, that’s none of our business!’”
For olive grove and cereal farmer Inès Massoudi, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this February was just the latest in a series of problems that were beyond his control, coming after five years of failed rains and two years of economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In particular, he worries that everything he needs for his holdings of the 50-acre Beja is now more expensive – and rarer – than it was before the war.
It doesn’t matter if you have to pay for more expensive wheat to grow, without pesticides to treat common wheat fungus, along with fertilizers to promote growth – Russia’s main export before the war – Inès yields can drop by as much as 60 percent.
“My farm is a part of the world and I feel it when something happens outside,” he says of his 50-acre plot, where olive trees stretch in the distance in a green mist.
As the growing season approaches, “everyone is doubtful”, continued Inès, “because the cost of growing wheat today is the equivalent of a car, or a new apartment… There was also a crisis in Ukraine that saw prices of cereals rise , along with the prices of agricultural chemicals. and fertilizers which became very expensive.”
Feel the heat
Back in Tunis, in the bustling Ettadhamen neighborhood, baker Mohamed Lounissi accepts he is struggling. “This is a daily challenge,” he explains:
“No goods and raw materials at all; it’s (all) too little: no flour, no sugar, oil not available all the time, everything not available all the time, as prices go up, prices have gone up tremendously, the increases are huge.”
Standing in front of a scorching bread oven and he fears he will lose his livelihood unless he can pay his mortgage, Mohamed admits that the pressures of running a business in the current situation are upon him. “If I don’t get the raw materials, I can’t work and I feel like I have a big responsibility to pay the workers.”
In the outside barn, Mohamed shows us his meager stock of wheat flour – a small pile of sacks that are almost knee-deep. He carefully locked the door as he left, silently rebuking himself for not doing so earlier.
Obtaining valuable materials “is a big deal”, he said. “If I order eight tons, they only give me one ton. They say you have to wait and then when I tell them I can’t work and I’m probably going to close, they say, ‘Okay, shut up, that’s none of our business!’”