Noura walks around the center of Tunis looking for milk. “”When I find it, I can only buy two bricks,” she said, referring to a scarcity that exemplifies the plight of a “slowly collapsing” industry.
According to official data, the Tunisian market consumes 1.8 million liters per day while producing a maximum of 1.2 million.
“Milk is essential, especially for our children,” a housewife in her fifties, Noura Bchini, told AFP. Another customer nearby, Leila Chaouali, says she gets it “but only at certain times of day, particularly in the morning. There will be more in the afternoon.
This shortage came to light in late October when supermarkets have posted the injunction: “two bricks of milk per citizen.
Leaning on his milking machine 40 kilometers west of Tunis, Mohamed Gharsallaoui, a farmer in the village of El Battan, explains that he has had to sell four cows in recent months to buy fodder and feed his twenty animals.
On his farm, this 65-year-old farmer displays invoices for hay, barley, and corn-soya supplement that he is unable to pay.
In ten years, the price of a 50 kg bag of supplement has increased eightfold, reaching 81 dinars (24 euros).
“Why do we lack milk? Because the cows are not given the quantities of food they need,” he explained to AFP.
“At a loss”
Each cow produces only 12 liters of milk per day out of a daily production of 30 liters. “We give them half as much fodder and grass as before,” he emphasizes.
Gharsallaoui, a passionate farmer who began with one cow 50 years ago, is saddened to see his herd dwindle.
“These are the cows that used to feed my family,” the father of four adult children explains. “Today, I have to send (my children) to work somewhere else to support my cows.
The Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fisheries (Utap) raised the alarm a year ago, “when farmers started selling their milk at a loss.”
“Animal feed prices have gone crazy with 30 to 40% increase over a year. This is related to the international situation, the war in Ukraine in particular,” which has caused the price of cereals, which Tunisia is a major importer, said his spokesman Anis Kharbeche.
He is concerned about the month of Ramadan, which will begin around March 22, “during which the consumption of milk increases and where the shortage will reach one million liters per day.
These difficulties are exacerbated by the drought in Tunisia, with dams filled to a maximum of 30%, according to Utap.
To limit their losses, many farmers are forced to sell part of their livestock, either to local butchers or to breeders in neighboring Algeria.
According to Utap, the Tunisian herds have been reduced by 30% in 2022.
Faced with this “slow collapse”, the state, which had supported after independence (in 1956) the establishment of a milk sector, must take the initiative, said Kharbeche, recalling that Tunisia managed to export milk some years until 2017.
For the time being, the state has been content to lower taxes on milk powder imports in the Finance Act 2023, despite the risk of competing with domestic production.
Recent statements by President Kais Saied attributing unidentified sector problems to “speculators” have not reassured farmers.
The solution for Utap would be “a variable price” applied by the State to milk purchases, which would fluctuate based on the price of animal feed. It would also be necessary to “assist farmers in the production of fresh grass” by implementing a wastewater reprocessing strategy and assisting them in the purchase of food supplements.
Milk is only one of the products affected by sporadic shortages in recent months, alongside coffee, sugar and oil.
Experts explain them by a lack of liquidity of the Tunisian State, which has the monopoly of the supply of subsidized basic products. Heavily indebted, the country has been negotiating for months a loan of almost 2 billion dollars with the IMF.