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Mozambique's Struggles Fueled By The Price Of Bread

Jun 7, 2011
Originally published on June 7, 2011 7:42 pm

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 would jump 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. People are only eligible if they earn the equivalent of about $80 a month or less, and if they 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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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

And in this part of the program we're going to follow the sweet smell of bread, that yeasty scent wafting over the streets of Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, in southeastern Africa. Everywhere you go in Mozambique, you see people in bakeries buying their daily bread, delicious crusty loaves or eggy sweet rolls.

I followed that tantalizing scent past a long line of customers into a Maputo bakery, the Padaria Allianca. Workers were busy slapping and shaping golden mounds of dough. This bakery turns out 12,000 loaves a day. I came to this bakery because the story of bread in Mozambique, as in much of the developing world, turns out to be a story about poverty and food security and social unrest.

Mr. FERNANDO LIMA (Journalist): The bread was the spark.

BLOCK: The spark for riots last September. Mozambican journalist and publisher Fernando Lima explains that last year, when the Mozambican government announced that food subsidies would end and the price of bread would jump 20 percent, hunger turned to rage.

Mr. LIMA: This was an incredible situation. Emotionally, everybody was with the rioters.

BLOCK: Young, unemployed people around Maputo took to the streets in protest. They burned tires, threw rocks at police. Security forces cracked down, firing on the crowds and at least 13 people were killed. Quickly, the government reversed itself, the food subsidies would stay. The price of bread would remain the same. I put this hypothetical to Antonio Cruz, who directs policy analysis in Mozambique's Planning Ministry.

If the government hadn't restored those subsidies, what do you think would have happened?

Mr. ANTONIO CRUZ (Mozambique Planning Ministry): The situation would be out of control.

BLOCK: So, subsidies reinstated, crisis averted. But now, Cruz says, the Mozambican government can't afford to maintain those subsidies.

Mr. CRUZ: And the prices, they have to go up and there is the need to take some action.

BLOCK: So, starting next month, 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 is thinking about what will happen very soon when the flour subsidy disappears and prices go up.

Are you worried about that? Are you worried about what changes are coming with the price of bread?

Mr. VICTOR MIGUEL (Baker): (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: Very much, he says. 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.

Mr. MIGUEL: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: You're worried that you'll lose - you may lose the customers.

Mr. MIGUEL: Yeah, it's true. You lose.

BLOCK: And that would include bread buyers like Rosa Mbiza. I talked to her outside a bakery where she just bought her morning loaf for about 25 cents. If prices shoot up, she says...

Ms. ROSA MBIZA: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: I'll stop eating bread and I'll start eating something else, she tells me. If I can't afford it, I'll have to see what I can eat other than bread. Mozambican journalist and publisher Fernando Lima 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.

Mr. LIMA: In fact, if you see beggars on the streets, beggars are always asking you either a loaf of bread or money to buy bread.

BLOCK: Now, 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 seven 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.

I asked Antonio Cruz of Mozambique's Planning Ministry if he sees a cautionary tale for his country with the fresh examples of violent upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt.

You know, I wonder if people here were thinking about what happened as they watched the revolutions spread across the Arab world. Are people talking about that and thinking, could the same thing happen here?

Mr. CRUZ: Yeah, people talk 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.

BLOCK: Concerned, Cruz says, acknowledging that social and economic conditions are combustible in Mozambique. High unemployment, a lack of opportunity and rising food prices all tied in with the powerfully symbolic loaf of bread. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.