By Aidan Lewis
KHARTOUM (Reuters) – As bakers in flour-stained clothes knead dough and slide trays of loaves into ovens in Sudan’s capital, a cluster of yellow-vested volunteers keep watch.
The goal of the self-styled guardians of the uprising that toppled ruler Omar al-Bashir is to stem the smuggling of heavily subsidized flour and bread destined for citizens struggling through a long-running economic crisis.
Bread was a symbol of the revolution – an attempt to raise bread prices was a trigger for the first major protests, in the city of Atbara.
But flour and fuel are still being siphoned off onto the black market, contributing to shortages that have dampened spirits six months into a 39-month transition and left a weak civilian government struggling to respond.
“We are monitoring what enters and leaves the bakery – the flour before it is made into bread, the bread that comes out, who it goes to, at what time and why,” said 20-year-old student Mohaned Babeker, standing watch at the bakery in the Khartoum neighborhood of Arkawit.
The volunteers have already caught wheat or bread being smuggled out of bakeries in Arkawit – in one case 2,000 loaves for sale at triple the price outside Khartoum, Babeker said. The culprits got a police warning.
Bread is sometimes sold to restaurants at a 20% mark-up, a second volunteer said.
For the past two weeks, the volunteers have been entering their data on flour deliveries, bakery closures and smuggling into a mobile app being piloted in Arkawit.
They hope to expand their activities to flour mills and distribution networks, and that the app will help reveal where smuggling and diversion of supplies is occurring.
“I think the fuel supply and the bread crises will be solved by collecting the right data,” said Mohamed Nimir, a 31-year-old software engineer who developed the app.
The volunteers, who work in shifts, are drawn from “resistance committees” connected to the movement that mobilized months of street protests before and after Bashir was forced from power last April.
SLEEPING ON FLOUR SACKS
As the latest supply crisis led to lengthy fuel and bread queues over the past few weeks, they deployed at bakeries across Khartoum and beyond.
Trade and Industry Minister Madani Abbas Madani, who is responsible for bread policy and was a prominent figure in the anti-Bashir movement, has publicly thanked the committees for their work, tweeting pictures of volunteers including one who was asleep on sacks of flour, and both the ministry and the committees have said they will try to pool their efforts.
The government has retreated from raising the price of bread, but Madani announced last week that commercial bakeries where bread can be sold at a higher price would be expanded from April, and that the size of fully subsidized loaves sold at 1 Sudanese pound (2 U.S. cents at the official rate, or 1 U.S. cent on the parallel market) would be cut from 70 grams to 42-48 grams.
At a bakery in Khartoum’s Al-Riyadh district, some customers waved the smaller loaves, lamenting their reduced size. Owner Hisham Sharfi said bakers had faced rising costs and dwindling supplies of flour, and that the ministry should have set the size a little larger.
“The citizen queuing who sees this loaf says this is small. It’s better he pays 1.5 pounds for a big loaf, it’s more credible,” he said.
Suggestions that subsidies could be lifted have angered some, but opinions are split.
“My personal view is if the government removed the subsidy, it would (still) be better than the old regime coming back,” said 55-year-old Salah Ibrahim, as he bought loaves in Arkawit.
(Additional reporting by Nafisa Eltahir; Editing by Alison Williams)