According to the National Agriculture Observatory (ONAGRl), in 2022 Tunisia’s production of soft wheat—the main ingredient in the flour that bakers use for bread—reached 626,000 quintals in the northeast and 532,000 quintals in the northwest. With domestic production insufficient to meet Tunisian consumers’ demands, the country depends on foreign imports to offset the imbalance. In 2021, 49% of Tunisia’s soft wheat imports were from Ukraine, 26% from Bulgaria and 10% from Russia.
State control over the grain industry
The State’s monopoly over the grain sector is exercised through the Grain Board, a public institution under the Ministry of Agriculture and the only authority specialized in the wheat industry.
According to the 2022 National Agricultural Bank’s financial report, the Grain Board’s outstanding debt reached 4,786 million dinars at the end of 2022, or a 21% increase from December 31, 2021. The non-profit organization Alert highlighted this information in a statement posted on its official page on May 21, 2023, explaining how the State’s delayed disbursement of subsidies has resulted in the Grain Board’s inability to import the market’s needs in durum wheat.
Grain processing facilities, or flour mills, transform hard and soft wheat into semolina and flour. Tunisia has 23 mills, with 19 located in Greater Tunis and the Sahel region. These private establishments are overseen by the National Chamber of Flour Mills within the Tunisian Union for Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA). “Flour mills and bakeries are all overseen by the UTICA, and it cannot be said here that there is a conflict of interests between these two parties. The distribution of soft wheat quotas is characteristically unequal and lacking in competition. The bakeries which use subsidized flour have absolute priority in receiving their quotas; their monthly quotas are fixed by a ministerial circular,” said Mohamed Jammeli, President of the Professional Association of Modern Bakeries (affiliated with the Confederation of Citizen Enterprises of Tunisia, CONECT), in an interview with Nawaat.
Jammeli added: “We do not use subsidized flour, even though we bake large loaves, baguettes and sweets, use the same equipment, rely on the same labor force and have the same expenses, just like the bakeries using subsidized soft wheat. But we buy the quintal for 655 dinars, while other bakeries purchase the quintal for only 220 dinars. In addition to this, the State gives them a compensation of 80 dinars per quintal”.
Discrimination against unsubsidized bakeries
The production, display and sale of bread, as a consumer item that is bought and sold, is regulated by a Ministry of Commerce ruling dated November 13, 2020.
According to this text, only registered bakeries use subsidized “PS” grade flour to make large bread loaves. These bakeries fall under category “A”, while bakeries specializing in the smaller size baguette fall under category “C”. Category “B” bakeries, which once produced 70% large bread and 30% baguettes, were abandoned in 2011 to prevent manipulation of subsidized flour supplies. Registered bakeries’ monthly subsidized flour quota is provided exclusively by the flour mills.
“We consume 6 million quintals of subsidized soft wheat each year. 500 thousand quintals are distributed each month to 3,500 registered bakeries. The quantity distributed ranges from 4.5 to 10 quintals per bakery, depending on the number of inhabitants in each region of the country”, explains Mohamed Bouanane, president of the National Chamber of Bakery Owners. Bouanane denies the existence of any monopoly over the soft wheat sector: “The Ministry of Commerce is in charge of the distribution of durum and soft wheat; it is impossible that a monopoly exists since the sector is controlled by the State.”
Unregistered bakeries, on the other hand, make do with the production of lesser quality bread made using PS-7 grade flour and whose weight does not exceed 150 grams. These bakeries are not allowed to receive or use the PS grade subsidized flour.
“We were ridiculed for making five-dinar croissants, but our role is important in times of crisis, and the other bakeries cannot continue to work without us”, Mohamed Jammeli told us with regards to the continuous work of unregistered bakeries despite recurring strikes led by registered bakeries.
More than a circumstantial crisis, Tunisia’s bread shortage raises questions about how the grain industry is governed, about the distribution of soft and durum wheat to flour mills, and about the cost of cereal subsidies which increased from 1,253 million dinars in 2015 to 3,025 million dinars in 2022, according to the Ministry of Commerce. Such data exposes the limitations of the conspiracy narrative that has become so familiar to Tunisians, a tale invoked whenever the president intervenes to address one of the many crises relating to the country’s shortage of subsidized goods.