Empty shelves and rising prices linked to the Ukrainian crisis are pushing Tunisians to the brink |

“There is no sugar, I have to take a taxi very far to buy a kilo of sugar,” said a frustrated woman at a market in Kairouan, a town several hours’ drive south of the capital. Tunisia.

” Prices increase ! The poor can no longer afford anything. It’s like the world is on fire,” says another woman, opening her purse to pay for a bag of tomatoes, pell-mell on a wooden cart by the side of the road.

Surprise call

Nodding in agreement, the merchant takes his money and makes a surprising, if discreet, appeal. “Please make it easier for us to migrate across the sea, so that we can leave,” he said.

Although the elderly client scoffs 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 despite the fact that several thousand people have died trying to cross the central Mediterranean Sea from North African countries to Europe in dangerous boats in recent years, and regular television reports that announce another person – or family – missing at sea.

In Tunis, Tunisia, a local newspaper says there will soon be a delivery of sugar to the country.

Migration pressures

“I think what the crisis in Ukraine has brought back is the hard choices that people have to make on a daily basis, because people forced to flee their homes, people forced to flee their country, don’t make that decision. lightly,” says Safa Msehli, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

For many Tunisians, the supply of basic foodstuffs remains a challenge, even though more than 85,000 metric tons of Ukrainian wheat have arrived in Tunisian ports in the two months since the Black Sea Grain Initiative put into action, its Joint Coordination Center in Odessa said on Thursday.

The agreement was described as a “beacon of hope” by the UN Secretary General António Guterres during the signing ceremony of the Black Sea Grain Initiative on July 27 in Istanbul, with representatives from Russia and Ukraine.

Since August 1, 240 ships have left Ukrainian ports with some 5.4 million metric tons of grain and other foodstuffs.

Distribute the load

At a huge mill in Tunisia’s capital, there’s plenty of flour, as workers stand under a conveyor belt carrying a seemingly endless supply of semolina, packed in large, heavy-duty plastic bags.

As the sacks begin to fall, the men take turns catching them and loading them into a large flatbed truck until it is full, their faces covered in fine white flour.

The scene is industrious, but the factory isn’t as busy as it should be, thanks in large part to the impact of the Ukrainian conflict on curtailing grain exports from the Black Sea and its role in the accentuation of the existing economic uncertainty.

“Now we are not in crisis, the crisis is still happening,” says Redissi Radhouane, the chief plant operator at The Tunisian Semolina Company. “When we look for wheat, we don’t find any. Wheat is no longer plentiful as before.

Redissi Radhouane is the chief operator of the Compagnie Tunisienne de Semoulerie flour mill in Tunis, Tunisia.

Redissi Radhouane is the chief operator of the Compagnie Tunisienne de Semoulerie flour mill in Tunis, Tunisia.

“It’s like hunting without bullets”

At a wholesaler in Mornag, a town on the outskirts of Tunis, customer Samia Zwabi is well aware of shortages and rising prices.

She explains to UN News that she needs to borrow money or buy goods on credit for her groceries, assuming she can find them in the first place. Like many parents, the fact that it’s back to school is an added concern.

Half capacity

“We work halfway,” says Samia Zwabi, who unrolls a wish list that includes milk, sugar, cooking oil and fruit juice. “When a client comes, they can’t get all the basics. Customers ask for something I don’t have. We have no options. We must be able to work to feed our children.

Echoing this message, wholesaler Walid Khalfawi’s main headache is the lack of available cooking oil, as indicated by his bare reserves. Another growing concern is the number of customers paying on credit, he tells us, as he waves a thick wad of handwritten IOUs.

“If a grocer comes here looking for cooking oil and finds it, he will automatically buy pasta, tomatoes, couscous and other products,” says the married father of three. “If he can’t find it, he won’t buy anything… It’s like going into the forest to hunt with your rifle but you don’t have any bullets. What can you do?”

Wholesaler Walid Khalfawi talks to UN News at a local grocery store in Tunis, Tunisia.

Wholesaler Walid Khalfawi talks to UN News at a local grocery store in Tunis, Tunisia.

Sole breadwinner

From her modest one-storey house in the city of Kairouan, Najwa Selmi supports her family by making traditional artisan flatbreads called “tabouna”, twice in the morning and once in the evening.

The process is laborious and time-consuming, with a batch of eight flat rolls taking about 15 minutes to form from semolina flour, water, yeast and a drop of olive oil.

Once prepared, Najwa wets the surface of the soft patties and slaps them inside a concrete oven that has been fueled with firewood from outside. She winces in pain as she removes them with her burnt hands, once she is convinced they are cooked.

The bread is delicious and Najwa has loyal customers, but it’s not easy to get a regular supply of flour, she tells us.

Najwa Selmi, at home with her daughter, shows an UNTV film crew how to make traditional 'tabouna' bread.

Najwa Selmi, at home with her daughter, shows an UNTV film crew how to make traditional ‘tabouna’ bread.

The class blues

“My youngest daughter will start school soon and I haven’t bought her anything yet, no bag, no books, no school supplies, no clothes,” she says. “If for some reason I had to stop working…or if I got sick, we don’t know what the future holds, my family will be hungry, what will they eat?

“Where are they going to get the money from? We have no other alternative source of income.

In Tunis’ bustling Ettadhamen district, bakery owner Mohamed Lounissi is open about the stresses and challenges of keeping his business afloat, thanks to chronic flour shortages caused by war in Ukraine.

“For us it’s a big problem, if I order eight tons, they only give me one ton. They say we have to wait and then when I tell them that I can’t work and that I could close, they say: ‘Ok, close, it’s none of our business!’

Essential oils

For olive and grain farmer Inès Massoudi, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February is just the latest in a series of problems beyond her control, after five years of failed rains and two years of economic uncertainty. caused by the COVID-19[feminine] pandemic.

In particular, she worries that everything she needs for her 50-hectare property in Beja is now more expensive – and rarer – than before the war.

Never mind having to pay for more expensive grain to plant, pesticide-free to treat soft wheat fungus, and fertilizer to promote growth – a key export from Russia before the war – Inès’ harvest could down 60%.

“My farm is part of the world and it feels it when something is happening outside,” she says of her 50-hectare farm, where olive trees stretch into the distance in a green mist.

In anticipation of the next sowing season, “everyone is hesitating”, continues Inès, “because the cost of planting wheat today is the equivalent of a car, or a new apartment… there is also the crisis in Ukraine which has pushed up grain prices. , as well as the prices of agrochemicals and fertilizers which have become very expensive.

Inès Massoudi (back to camera) is an olive and cereal farmer who owns a 50-hectare farm in Béja, Tunisia.

Inès Massoudi (back to camera) is an olive and cereal farmer who owns a 50-hectare farm in Béja, Tunisia.

feel the heat

Back in Tunis, in the lively district of Ettadhamen, the baker Mohamed Lounissi admits that he is in difficulty. “It’s a daily challenge,” he explains:

“There are no goods and raw materials at all; it’s (everything) too little: no flour, no sugar, oil is not available all the time, not everything is available all the time, with the increase in prices, prices have gone terribly increased, these are big increases.

Standing in front of a sweltering bread oven he fears he will lose his livelihood unless he can repay his mortgage, Mohamed admits the stress of running a business in the current situation is getting to him. “If I don’t get the raw material, I can’t work, and I feel I have a big responsibility in terms of workers’ compensation.”

In an outdoor warehouse, Mohamed shows us his meager supply of wheat flour – a small pile of sacks barely reaching knee height. He carefully locks the door as he leaves, quietly blaming himself for not having done so sooner.

Getting the precious ingredient “is a big deal,” he says. “If I order eight tons, they only give me one ton. They say we have to wait and then when I tell them that I can’t work and that I could close, they say: ‘Ok, close, it’s none of our business!’

A customer chats with UN News at a bakery in the Tunis district of Ettadhamen.

A customer chats with UN News at a bakery in the Tunis district of Ettadhamen.

Christi C. Elwood