An 800-ton rice shipment docked in the Indian Ocean archipelago after three months of shortages that have sharpened hunger and stoked unrest provides some relief to a country heavily hit by the global food crisis.
“We can officially declare the end to the rice shortage,” declared Ben Abdallah Youssouf of Onicor, a state entity that holds a monopoly on imports and trade in “ordinary” rice, the cheapest and most consumed rice variety.
But many locals who have struggled to put food on the table in recent weeks said they were far from convinced. “They say there’s enough rice for everyone, but I don’t believe it anymore,” said Ben Laden, who like many others had joined the crowd at the dock in the hope of getting his hands on a sack.
Supply-chain snags and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have caused food shortages and high prices across much of the world. But the crisis has been felt acutely in Comoros, an island chain of almost 900,000 people located between Madagascar and Mozambique, which was left virtually without its staple food.
The country imports most of its food, and Onicor has blamed the lack of rice on suppliers, saying they did not deliver what they promised. When the supply crunch started to bite, rations were put in place, with a 55-pound bag earmarked to feed up to six families until the next shipment arrived.
When a freighter carrying about 800 tons of rice arrived early last month, most families had already run out of stock. Long lines had already formed outside distribution points, and some people placed bricks on the ground to hold their place in the line while they ran other errands.
The precious cargo was unloaded under the watchful eye of heavily armed security forces but in any case, could only cover a fraction of the country’s needs. According to the government, up to 7,000 tons of rice are consumed every month.
As the government’s promises to deliver emergency assistance failed to materialize, tensions rose. Police arrested nine people after a truck convoy carrying rice bags was attacked, with some distribution points being moved to police stations.
In the town of Ouani, authorities fired tear gas to disperse an angry crowd. The cost of 2.2 pounds of rice, which normally sells for less than one US dollar, more than quadrupled. Most rice is imported from India and Pakistan.
Families scrambled to find alternatives, but not everyone could afford pasta or root vegetables, which had also gone up in price due to high demand. About a quarter of the population lives below the threshold of poverty, according to the World Bank.
All of this will “soon be just a bad memory,” declared Youssouf, wearing a high-visibility vest as he oversaw the offloading in the port of Moroni on Monday night. Another 12,000 tons of rice would arrive on Tuesday, he promised.