Mozambique's Struggles Fueled By The Price Of Bread

Jun 7, 2011

Everywhere you go in Mozambique, you see people at bakeries buying their daily bread — delicious crusty loaves or eggy sweet rolls.

At the Padaria Allianca, a bakery in the capital, Maputo, customers wait in a long line for their bread. Workers are busy slapping and shaping golden mounds of dough. The bakery turns out 12,000 loaves a day.

The story of bread in Mozambique — as in much of the developing world — turns out to be a tale of poverty, food security and social unrest.

Bread was "the spark" for riots last September, says Mozambican journalist and publisher Fernando Lima. He explains that last year, when the Mozambican government announced that food subsidies would end, and the price of bread jumped 20 percent — hunger turned to rage.

"This was an incredible situation. Emotionally, everybody was with the rioters," Lima says.

Young, unemployed people around Maputo took to the streets in protest. They burned tires. They threw rocks at police. Security forces cracked down, firing on the crowds. At least 13 people were killed. Quickly, the government reversed itself: the food subsidies would stay. The price of bread would remain the same.

Antonio Cruz, who directs policy analysis in Mozambique's planning ministry, says that if the government hadn't restored those subsidies, the situation "would be out of control."

So the subsidies were reinstated; crisis averted.

But now, Cruz says, the Mozambican government can't afford to maintain those subsidies.

"And the prices, they have to go up — and there is the need to take some action," Cruz says.

So, starting in July, there's a new plan: When the subsidies disappear, the urban poor will be able to buy a food basket at reduced cost — a basket of staples, including flour, cooking oil, beans and rice. You're only eligible if you earn the equivalent of about $80 a month or less — and if you live in one of 11 major cities. So the food basket won't help the millions of rural poor. And it won't help the urban poor who aren't quite poor enough to qualify. And even for those who are eligible, the basket could eat up more than a third of their monthly income.

Back at the Maputo bakery, as industrial mixers churn bread dough, manager Victor Miguel says he is thinking about what will happen very soon when the flour subsidy disappears and prices go up. He says he's worried about the changes coming with the price of bread.

"It's hard to work under the conditions we have now, and if we raise the price of bread, we don't know how the public will react," he says.

He says he's also worried that he may lose some customers.

That would include bread buyers like Rosa Mbiza, who had just bought her morning loaf for about 25 cents. If prices shoot up, she says, she'll stop eating bread.

"I'll start eating something else," she says. "If I can't afford it — I'll have to see what I can eat other than bread."

Lima, the Mozambican journalist and publisher, points out the irony embedded in his country's dependence on bread: Mozambique barely grows any wheat. The people's taste for bread is one more legacy of Portuguese colonialism.

"In fact, if you see beggars on the streets, beggars are always asking you for either a loaf of bread or money to buy bread," Lima says.

Think about the volatile economic conditions in Mozambique: It's among the world's poorest countries. It depends on foreign aid for half its budget. More than 80 percent of its people live on less than $2 a day.

And yet here's the paradox: Mozambique's economy is on a tear, projected to grow this year by more than 7 percent. That growth is fueled by big industrial projects whose profits haven't lifted people out of poverty. What that means is a huge gap between rich and poor.

So, does Cruz of Mozambique's planning ministry see a cautionary tale for his country with the fresh examples of violent upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt?

"Yeah, people talk," he says. "And people are afraid that this could happen here because the riots from September last year were very recent so people are concerned about this."

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