KHARTOUM, Sept 23 – In Khartoum’s main food market, loudspeakers blare out the price of meat in a bid to attract customers, but it seems a futile gesture in the face of spiralling inflation that has driven many people away.
Mubarak Ibrahim, who runs a meat stall in the Souq al-Markazi, says business has plummeted this year because of the soaring cost of beef, which has doubled since January and now sells for 20 Sudanese pounds per kilo ($5, 3.70 euros).
“Before the prices started rising, I sold around 300 kilos of beef every day. Now I sell just 120 kilos a day,” he adds.
The government is scrabbling to contain the “crisis of high food prices,” as the governor of Khartoum state described it earlier this week, which has hit ordinary Sudanese hard and forced painful household spending cuts.
The cabinet approved measures on Thursday aimed at boosting agricultural output, by cutting tax on some food products and easing imports on milk and chicken in a bid to reduce prices directly.
But it increasingly seems to be running out of options.
The crisis comes on the back of mounting economic problems for Sudan, ranging from weak state finances and an ailing currency to crippling foreign debt estimated at around $38 billion.
These prompted the government to announce a new austerity package in June, shortly before the secession, on July 9, of the oil-producing south.
The independence of South Sudan, where three-quarters of the country’s 470,000 barrels per day of oil is produced, has aggravated the crisis, depriving the north of much of its hard currency income.
The Sudanese pound (SDG) has slumped against the dollar, which now buys four SDG or more compared with around three in January, further restricting Khartoum’s ability to buy food on the international market.
A rare three-day meat boycott announced last week by the Sudanese consumer protection society, a local NGO, in protest at the punitive prices, appears to have achieved very little in cooling the cost of beef.
One woman shopping in the central market, who requested anonymity, said she has cut the amount of food she buys by around 25 percent.
“For three days I boycotted meat, but when I returned to the market I found the price was same as before. But the problem is not just meat. All food prices have gone up.”
Naama Osman, a young mother of five whose husband works for the government, said food inflation has also forced her to limit her family’s diet.
“All the food prices have gone up, and this affects what my family gets to eat. Before the high prices, I could buy any food that I wanted. Now I’ve stopped buying fruit.”
Meanwhile, officials pin high hopes on the ability of Sudan’s once-thriving agricultural industry to boost exports to compensate for the shortfall in oil revenues, and bring food prices down.
Abdelrahman al-Khidir, the Khartoum governor, on Monday unveiled two new projects in his state that he said would increase beef and vegetable production, without providing details.
But even if the government does manage to ramp up food output, which many doubt it will, there is a growing number of hungry Sudanese families to feed before the government can begin exporting to neighbouring Arab countries.