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Food shortage crises and high prices: Tunisians struggle during Ramadan

Food shortage crises and high prices: Tunisians struggle during Ramadan

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Life Marginalized Groups

Tuesday 28 March 202304:55 pm
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أزمات واحتكار ولّدا اللهفة... "جيب" التونسي ينزف مجدّدا في رمضان

During all the events that the country has been facing, starting with the outbreak of the revolution in late 2010, to the coronavirus pandemic and the current food shortage crisis, Tunisians have learned to stock up on essential items at home.

The most important food items that they store include flour, pastries, milk, oil, and sugar. It is a habit that citizens have become accustomed to, out of fear of losing these essential food items that are indispensable to the average Tunisian kitchen. It generates an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, or a sort of "eagerness", a behavior marked by excessive consumption that citizens have adopted recently, even if it costs them additional expenses, especially during the month of Ramadan when consumption habits increase.

Missing provisions

In the past, Tunisian families never went without storing provisions, and hardly a house was devoid of a supply or "storage room" where essential consumable items that were stored to be used throughout the year, were 100% homemade products, such as "couscous, bsisa (roasted cereal flour), bulgur, spices, and olive oil…”. These items are mostly stored in clay pots and jars to preserve them from spoilage. However, the concept of food storage has changed with the changing circumstances in the country. Nowadays, canned goods are stored to prevent potential shortages that may arise during periods where they'd be unavailable. Sometimes these items spoil due to lack of use and poor storage, and they end up being thrown away in the trash, despite their high cost.

Consumerism, food shortages, price gouging, and monopolistic trade practices are leaving Tunisians to feel the heat with the start of Ramadan

The loss of food items is not the only reason behind this Tunisian 'eagerness' to acquire and store them, as there are other added factors that further complicate the crisis, including rumors that are spread on social media sites and suggest the possibility of an imminent shortage in a certain item, prompting Tunisians to purchase it in large quantities until it completely disappears from the market. However, what has recently drawn attention is the Tunisians' normalization of the shortage in consumer goods, due to several factors, the most important of which is the various goods that are in short supply, the lack of trust in the market, and the high prices, making the citizen unable even to afford his daily basic necessities.

"No longer able to stockpile"

"We were less than a month away from the start of the month of Ramadan, but I wasn't able to prepare for this important occasion as well as I used to in the past. It is not due to any negligence on my part, but the cost of preparing for the month of fasting has risen to a level beyond my ability to keep up with this insane increase in prices. For me, preparing for Ramadan starts with renewing kitchen tools and utensils, preparing sweets, and finally ends with meats, vegetables, and grains that I buy a few days before the month begins so that they remain fresh. This year, I didn't think about any preparations or arrangements and just went shopping on a daily basis according to what fits my budget," says Manal, a fifty-something housewife and mother of four children, while speaking to Raseef22 about the change in her consumer behavior in light of the current situation that the country is going through, characterized by an unprecedented rise in prices, in addition to the loss of other goods. Manal is a sample from a large segment of Tunisian society that is tired of "running" after missing goods, and drained by the continuous high prices and the exacerbation of this monopolization and conditional selling.

Tunisian citizens bear part of the responsibility for the current situation due to the absence of a culture of consumption and limited awareness of consumer rights

Sociology professor Sami Nasr says Tunisian consumption is characterized by eagerness to buy in normal cases, but what's striking in the recent period is the absence of this eagerness or its decrease when talking about the crisis of food item shortages and price hikes, indicating that Tunisians have a "phobia" of losing basic goods, and if there was no change in their behavior, we would have faced many problems related to the rush to acquire and shop.

Speaking to Raseef22, Nasr adds that the absence of longing is explained by the multiplicity of materials likely to be lost, and therefore, the Tunisian does not know what he will accept, as almost all merchandise has become vulnerable to loss from the market, in addition to the fact that the purchasing power of the Tunisian has been damaged, and he no longer has the ability to practice the hobby of "longing," which requires monitoring significant amounts of money. As for the Tunisian woman, she no longer has the ability to prepare for the month of Ramadan as she used to, and has become more realistic in her approach to the situation.

Nasr adds in his conversation with Raseef22 that the absence of this eagerness can be explained by the possibility of multiple items being lost from the market, so Tunisians do not know what to expect, as almost all goods are susceptible to being lost from the market. In addition, the purchasing power of Tunisians has been damaged, and they can no longer afford to indulge in this sense of eagerness that requires a significant amount of money. Whereas the third reason is normalizing price increases and the current market situation. It has been noticed that citizens no longer complain and are trying to resist the current situation with popular jokes that spread more as the crisis worsens. This method, known as the sociology of popular jokes, is an attempt to conquer oppression and resist the bitterness of the situation they reject.

"Due regard to the consumer"

If successive governments bear responsibility for the sharp and continuous rise in all basic commodities and their failure to fully control and address this monopoly, then Tunisian citizens bear part of the responsibility for the current situation due to the absence of a culture of consumption and limited awareness of consumer rights. This has prompted many consumer advocacy organizations to develop effective strategies aimed at promoting a culture of responsible and rational consumption while combating all forms of fraud, deception and monopolies.

Tunisian consumers have been facing multiple problems for some time due to the loss of some food commodities from the market, and things become more complicated during the month of Ramadan, including conditional selling. In order to be able to buy a carton of milk, citizens are forced to buy its derivatives such as yogurt and cheese, a habit that sellers have instilled in the minds of citizens, who have become accustomed to such monopolistic practices.

The loss of food items is not the only reason behind this Tunisian 'eagerness' to acquire and store them, as there are other added factors that further complicate the crisis

The head of the Consumer Protection Organization (ODC), Ammar Dhayya, emphasizes that the culture of consumption is not a lesson taught in a classroom where the citizen benefits from it, but rather is a complete program, and strategy that includes everyone, given that that the culture of consumption means the relationship that connects the seller to the buyer and the service provider to the beneficiary. He stresses the need to work on changing consumption behaviors so that citizens can become aware of the laws that protect them and familiarize themselves with the services or products they will receive. The sellers of services are also obligated to interact with and respect their customers to ensure the continuity of their business.

The expert believes that a culture of consumption where the consumer is respected as a human being, guarantees his/her rights when it comes to price and quality, and this requires promoting competition to ensure quality in the interest of the citizen. He adds that "the culture of consumption is difficult at this stage. When there are crises or pandemics, problems increase. In order for the market to be balanced, there must be more products than the demand, but when the opposite happens, serious issues such as speculation, conditional selling, and monopolies arise. Talking about food shortages creates a sense of urgency in consumers, causing them to buy more than they need. Therefore, we must be cautious of these practices, as goods are sometimes deliberately hidden to create demand or spread rumors of their scarcity to create eagerness and increase interest beyond the consumer's requirements. Citizens must control the purchasing process and adopt a culture of boycott if necessary."

"A severe penalty for these monopolistic practices"

Monopolistic practices and price hikes have plagued Tunisian society for decades, despite repeated attempts to tackle them and increase penalties. Former president Habib Bourguiba addressed this in one of his famous speeches.

The Ministry of Commerce is working during the month of Ramadan to combat price hikes and control all monopolistic practices, while seeking to promote responsible consumption and resist the phenomenon of wastefulness or hoarding commodities

The Ministry of Commerce in particular is working, during the month of Ramadan, to combat price hikes and control all monopolistic practices. It is also seeking to promote responsible consumption and resist the phenomenon of wastefulness or hoarding commodities, which affects the entire market.

Abdelkader Timoumi, the Director General of the National Consumption Institution (NCI) of Tunisia, points out that consumer rights are regulated by Law No. 117 of 1992 and Law No. 36 of 2015, which relate to the reorganization of competition and prices. He points out that these laws ensure consumer rights in terms of advertising prices and providing information about products, to the extent that citizens can demand a receipt regardless of the price of the product, and the merchant is obligated to provide it.

Timoumi tells Raseef22, "In terms of practices in this current economic situation that is characterized by the presence of some problems, it is impossible for consumer products to experience a shortage. The problems that have to do with supply are related to practices that have become commonplace, such as conditional selling, which citizens have accepted even though the penalty for this practice is a great one, and it is considered a monopolistic practice that can be summed up in three things: concealing goods, refusing to sell, and conditional selling. It is up to citizens to play their part in reporting these monopolistic practices and not succumb to the conditions that merchants exploit to sell their products, as well as for merchants who are subject to similar practices by manufacturers."

Timoumi also pointed out that the Ministry of Commerce is currently working on combating monopolistic practices and is conducting joint monitoring campaigns, whether through reports or observation. He indicated that monitoring takes place in production, on the roads, and in distribution channels.

Timoumi believes that the Tunisian consumer behavior, according to studies carried out by the National Consumption Institution, is characterized by increased awareness by demanding their rights and improving the pattern of consumption, but the problem is the waste of food in daily products such as bread. He indicates that Tunisians do not give value to the side effects of waste despite its negative impact on the pocket of the citizen and on the national interest, and accordingly the institute decided to broadcast awareness-raising advertisements during the month of Ramadan.

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