Tunisia struggles to grow more wheat as Ukraine war bites

Mondher Mathali, a farmer in Tunisia, stands in front of a sea of swaying golden wheat and revs his roaring 1976 combine harvester, which he worries might break down at any time.

Since the conflict in Ukraine caused cereal prices to jump worldwide, import-dependent Tunisia has declared a campaign to cultivate all of its own durum wheat, the raw material for regional favourites like couscous and pasta.

The tiny nation in North Africa is desperately trying to avoid food shortages and civil instability, just like its neighbours, but for farmers on the sun-baked plains north of Tunis, even the necessities are difficult.

Since the country's 2011 revolution, Tunisia has had ten different governments, years of drought, and political turmoil.

Both the coronavirus epidemic and the war in Ukraine, which supplied almost half of Tunisia's imports of soft wheat used in bread last year, have disrupted those supply lines.

Although it still intends to import soft wheat, the nation is working to achieve durum wheat self-sufficiency by the 2023 harvest. Given that the average Tunisian consumes 17 kilogrammes of pasta year, second only to Italians, it would be a significant contribution to the national diet.

Around 3,000 combine harvesters are present in Tunisia, however 80% of them are outdated and extremely inefficient, which is a significant loss.

Poorer nations have long been urged by international organisations to concentrate on growing specialised cash crops for export rather than necessities.

According to a World Bank research from 2014, due to its affordable labour, Tunisia "does not have a substantial comparative advantage in grains" and should instead concentrate on "labour demanding" crops.

The lender stated in June that it was offering "incentives to sustainably expand domestic grain production" and reduce reliance on imports when it announced a $130 million loan for emergency cereal imports.

The ministry additionally announced in June that it would permit foreign investors to fully own agricultural businesses rather than insisting on at least a third Tunisian ownership.

Small-scale Small-scale Tunisian farmers won't be able to compete with large foreign investors that have access to low-cost loans from European banks.

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