The “potato crisis” at the heart of the implosion of the Algerian economy

Algeria is facing a multi-faceted crisis, one of the most serious since the country’s independence from North Africa in 1962. The seething social and economic turmoil has combined with lingering political demands that began with the Hirak uprising of 2019 that called for the end of the decades. long reign of Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

But today, the urgency is above all economic. A recession, first triggered last year by falling oil prices and exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, threatens millions of Algerians with the ability to eat properly. Families have been hit by the cash-strapped state’s decision last month to eliminate basic food and energy subsidies, which amount to more than $ 17 billion a year.

Where is my tagine?

Since the start of 2021, long before other countries started to be hit by inflation, prices in Algeria have increased rapidly on products such as milk, oil, pasta and pulses. Chicken, on which most low- and middle-income households depend, has become a hard-to-find luxury.

Yet, increasingly, the economic woes are measured by the shortage of a staple that is a key ingredient in national dishes such as tagine or chtitha batata: the potato. Indeed, the price of potatoes has almost tripled on the Algerian market in a few months, becoming a symbol of the deterioration of the country’s economic situation, stoking the anger of modest households and inflaming the risk of street protests.

The Algiers authorities have once again fled their responsibilities

As a pan-African daily Young Africa reports, with a sharp increase from 60 dinars ($ 0.43) to 140 dinars ($ 1) per kilogram, the humble potato has been hit hard, especially as the monthly minimum wage in the country is lower to 20,000 dinars ($ 144). This means that for the poorest citizens, an hour of work is not enough to afford a kilo of potatoes, one of the most basic and essential goods of Algerian households.

In an attempt to regulate the so-called “potato crisis”, the government announced last month the establishment of operations for the direct sale of potatoes at a fixed price of 50 dinars per kilo, and has said he would begin urgent importation of the staple food.

Market manipulation or government mismanagement?

Pointing to local authorities, the farmers identified two main problems causing such shortages: mismanagement of an on-going water crisis that has been dramatically worsened by scarcity of rainfall, and reduced rainfall. 50% of cultivable land due to lack of storage facilities.

Rather, state officials blame farmers for soaring prices for fruits and vegetables, including potatoes, saying they tried to manipulate the market by racking up supplies. In October, some 840 tonnes of potatoes were seized from a cold room in Boumerdes, just days after the discovery of 600 tonnes in a nearby town. Police raids have become routine in the region.

Algiers points the finger at speculators in the agrifood sector, or “Pablo Batata” as some Internet users call them, accused of stocking foodstuffs in order to drive up the prices of basic necessities, getting richer at the expense 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, declaring that these cold rooms were “illegal”. Following this, a bill to criminalize speculation, with sentences of up to thirty years in prison “if the offense involves commodities such as grains, milk, oil, sugar and pulses “was adopted on December 1.

However, Abdou Semmar, an Algerian journalist told the Moroccan daily Hespress that the Algiers authorities have once again evaded their responsibilities, identifying new scapegoats to blame. “They accuse the farmers of being criminals. It’s like saying they hide all the potatoes in the country to raise the price. It’s a story that just doesn’t hold up.”

Lack of cultivable land

Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Abdelhamid Hamdani has been dismissed from his post over allegations that he submitted false reports on national production to Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. In addition, the online investigative journal Algeria Share More reports that during the Bouteflika regime, Hamdani was also at the heart of a corruption scandal, linked to the illegal allocation of several thousand hectares of farmland to billionaire oligarchs.

Measured in area, Algeria is the largest country in Africa and the tenth largest in the world, but has only 8.5 million hectares available for agriculture. This is equivalent to less than 4% of the national territory, which includes a vast Saharan area largely uncultivable. Nevertheless, Algeria can produce around five billion tonnes of potatoes per year, making it the twentieth largest producer in the world. In fact, last year Algiers even announced that it would start exporting potatoes.

The potato sector, like the rest of Algeria’s agricultural industry, has the potential not only to feed the nation, but also to build export capacities. However, there are prerequisites: mastering the latest technologies, defining a future-oriented commercial strategy, and as for other aspects of Algerian life: setting the policy.

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