The "Potato Crisis" At The Heart Of Algeria's Imploding Economy
Prices have tripled on the staple product, as farmers and the government blame each other while ordinary Algerians struggle to put food on the table. It's yet another crisis between economics and politics in the troubled North African nation.
Algeria is facing a multifaceted crisis, one of the most serious since the North African country gained independence in 1962. Boiling social and economic unrest has combined with continuing political demands that began with the Hirak uprising of 2019 that called for the end to the decades-long rule of Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
But today, the urgency is above all economic. A recession, first sparked last year by the fall in oil prices and worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, threatens millions of Algerians from being able to properly put food on the table. Families have been hit by a decision last month by the cash-strapped state to eliminate subsidies of basic food and energy products, which amounts to over $17 billion per year.
Where's my tagine?
Since the beginning of 2021, well before other countries began to be hit by inflation, prices in Algeria have been rising quickly on goods such as milk, oil, pasta, and dry vegetables. Chicken, which most low and middle-income households rely upon, has become a hard-to-find luxury.
Yet increasingly, the economic hardship is being measured by the shortage of a staple product that is a key ingredient in such national dishes as tagine or chtitha batata: the potato. Indeed, the price of potatoes has almost tripled on the Algerian market in just a few months, becoming a symbol of the nation's deteriorating economic situation, stirring up anger within modest households and igniting the risk of street protests.
Algiers authorities have once again shirked their responsibilities
As pan-African daily Jeune Afrique reports, with a sharp increase from 60 dinars ($0.43) to 140 dinars (1$) per kilogram, the humble potato was hit hard, especially considering that the monthly minimum wage in the country is less than 20,000 dinars ($144). This means that for the poorest citizens, one hour of work isn’t enough to afford a kilogram of potatoes, one of the most basic and essential goods for Algerian households.
In an attempt to regulate the so-called “potato crisis,” the government announced last month the establishment of direct sales operations of potatoes at a fixed price of 50 dinars per kilo, and said it would begin urgent importing of the staple.
Algeria can typically produce roughly five billion tons of potatoes a year
Market manipulation or state mismanagement?
Pointing the finger at local authorities, farmers identified two main problems at the origin of such shortages: mismanagement of an ongoing water crisis that was worsened dramatically by scarce rainfall, and the reduction of cultivable land by 50% due to the lack of storage facilities.
State officials instead blame farmers for the soaring prices of fruit and vegetables, including the potato, claiming that they have attempted to manipulate the market by hoarding supply. In October, some 840 tons of potatoes were seized in a cold room in Boumerdes, just a few days after 600 tons were discovered in a nearby city. Police raids became routine in the region.
Algiers points its finger towards speculators in the agri-food sector, or "Pablo Batata" as some internet users call them, accused of storing foodstuffs in order to drive up the prices of essential goods, growing wealthy on the backs of ordinary citizens.
Algeria is the largest country in Africa and yet less than 4% of the national territory is available for agriculture
In an attempt to contain the situation, the state closed 17 storage warehouses, stating that these cold rooms were "illegal.” Further to this, a draft law aimed to criminalize speculation, with penalties of up to thirty years in prison "if the crime concerns basic products such as cereals, milk, oil, sugar and legumes" was adopted December 1.
Still, Abdou Semmar, an Algerian journalist told Moroccan daily Hespress that the Algiers authorities have once again shirked their responsibilities, identifying new scapegoats to blame. "They're accusing the farmers of being criminals. It's like saying that they're hiding all the country's potatoes to increase the price. It's a story that just doesn't hold up."
Lack of cultivable land
In the meantime, the Minister for Agriculture, Abdelhamid Hamdani, was removed from his position over allegations that he presented false reports on national production to Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Furthermore, the online investigative journal Algéria Part Plus reports that during the Bouteflika regime, Hamdani was also at the heart of a corruption scandal, related to the illegal allocation of several thousand hectares of farmland to billionaire oligarchs.
Measured in area, Algeria is the largest country in Africa and tenth-largest in the world, yet only has 8.5 million hectares available for agriculture. This is equivalent to less than 4% of the national territory, which includes a vast Saharan area that is largely uncultivable. Nevertheless, Algeria can typically produce roughly five billion tons of potatoes a year, making it the twentieth biggest producer in the world. In fact, last year Algiers even announced it would begin exporting potatoes.
The potato sector, like the rest of the Algerian agricultural industry, has the potential to not only feed the nation but build export capacity. Yet there are prerequisites: mastering the latest technology, defining a forward-looking business strategy, and as with other aspects of Algerian life: fix the politics.
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