African countries

North African countries scramble for wheat amid war in Ukraine

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North African countries are racing to find new supplies of wheat to help contain rising food prices, as the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to hit the region.

With global supply chains already strained due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a wheat-buying spree in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – all of which rely heavily imported wheat to feed their populations – lays bare the scale of the challenge facing governments in the face of soaring food prices.

The crisis has been underscored by the UN food agency, which this week predicted that the poorest countries in North Africa, Asia and the Middle East that rely heavily on wheat imports are likely to suffer severe food insecurity due to the war in Ukraine.

Ramadan, which will begin the first week of April, threatens to aggravate the problem, with wheat consumption likely to rise as locals celebrate the holy month with traditional dishes.

Of the five North African nations, Egypt’s wheat plight is perhaps the most severe.

The world’s largest wheat importer with a population of 102 million, Egypt depends on Russia and Ukraine for 80% of its supply.

Egyptian wheat is mainly used to make the flatbreads supplied to around 60 million citizens who are entitled to subsidized food.

The rest of Egyptians eat so-called “free market” bread, the price of which has skyrocketed since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, in some cases by as much as 50%.

But they say the price of bread is only part of the problem.

“It’s not just bread that has gone up in price. The price of eggs, chicken, meat and wheat. They all went up,” said Suna Ahmed, 70, from Cairo. “It may be Ramadan-related, but it’s never been this bad before.”

Those among the millions of Egyptians who depend on subsidized bread say they were already under pressure.

Fahd Hassan, 33, a Cairo office worker with three children, says the size of bread available on the food subsidy card has shrunk over the years, forcing him to sometimes supplement his ration with the most expensive variety on the free market.

“But it’s not just about bread now. Everything soared dizzily. It’s a nightmare,” he said.

Mr. Hassan is entitled to five loaves a day on his card, at 0.25 Egyptian pounds each.

On Sunday, Supply Minister Ali Moselhy said the government intended to procure more than six million tonnes of local wheat during the harvest season, which begins in mid-April.

To encourage the sale of more wheat to the government, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi ordered on Sunday that “incentives” be offered to producers.

Egypt’s state grain buyer said this week that 63,000 tonnes of previously contracted Russian wheat, and a similar amount of Ukrainian and Romanian wheat, were due to arrive in the country within days.

It received 63,000 tonnes of French wheat on March 8 and a similar amount of Romanian wheat on March 5, the state’s General Authority for Commodity Supply said.

Tunisia, Morocco and Libya also import a large part of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Algeria, the second largest consumer of wheat in Africa after Egypt, imports it mainly from France and Argentina.

In a supermarket in the Tunisian capital this week, the shelves had no flour or semolina, a staple used across North Africa in couscous dishes.

Store managers said the problem was “panic buying” rather than shortages.

Almost half of the wheat that Tunisians use to make bread comes from Ukraine. Authorities say Tunisia has enough supplies to last three months.

In oil-rich but war-ravaged Libya, about 75% of the wheat comes from Russia or Ukraine.

Morocco is also heavily dependent on the two warring nations for supplies.

“There won’t be a shortage – wheat shipments regularly arrive at the port of Algiers,” said an Algerian port official who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Mustapha. For the past decade, Algeria has set the price of a French baguette at six cents American. The energy-rich nation now says it intends to scrap commodity subsidies.

Morocco has wheat stocks to cover five months of consumption, having received most of its orders from Ukraine before the start of the war, said the head of the federation of industrial mill owners.

A sign in French is placed on nearly empty shelves of bread and other wheat-based food items which reads "one bag per person" in a supermarket in Tunis, the Tunisian capital.  AFP

Morocco’s purchases from Ukraine and Russia represent 25% and 11% respectively of the country’s total wheat imports. The North African nation is now looking to make up the shortfall by buying more from France and turning to other countries, including Argentina, Poland and Germany, for supplies.

Morocco’s worst drought in 30 years, however, has jeopardized this year’s harvest, leading traders to forecast much larger and more expensive imports.

Food prices are also rising in Libya, which imports around 75% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine.

At a wholesale market in Tripoli, buyer Saleh Mosbah blamed “unscrupulous traders…They always want to profit in case of conflict”.

Shortages of staples such as wheat could have political and security consequences in North Africa, where governments are closely monitoring price fluctuations for any signs of popular discontent.

Bread price hikes have often triggered unrest in the past.

In Sudan, a popular uprising initially sparked by a rise in bread prices in late 2018 quickly turned into demands for the removal of dictator Omar Al Bashir, who was ousted by his generals in April 2019.

An attempt to remove bread subsidies in Egypt in 1977 led to deadly riots that forced President Anwar Sadat to back down.

Economic hardship, manifested in rising food prices, has also been the cause or partial motive of the Arab uprisings of the past decade and more recently in Lebanon and Algeria.

Updated: March 14, 2022, 6:29 p.m.