No more tomatoes
“We are poor and this makes us vegetarians by force because meat and poultry is just too expensive,” she said as she gathered whatever vegetables she was allowed to take for free.
Yemeni families are avid consumers of tomatoes and eat on average a kilo per day. But recently, prices have sky rocketed from around YR 200 (less than USD 1) per kilo to at least YR 600 – a three-fold hike.
Although the prices of vegetables are generally affected by the season, increasing in the winter due to the frost, today’s prices are unprecedented because the natural fluctuations are coupled with the increase in fuel prices.
Not many people understand the dynamics behind the increasing consumer prices and so according to Mohammed Al-Shara’abi, the owner of a large vegetable shop in Sana’a, the customers become “unfriendly” when they hear the high prices – especially the cost of tomatoes.
“They curse and shout at me and my employees as if it is my fault,” he said. “Many have resorted to canned tomato paste instead, which has also gone up somewhat because of the increasing demand.”
Yemen exports tomatoes to other countries – mainly Saudi Arabia. Ali Al-Junaid, General Manager of Planning and Monitoring and Evaluation of the Ministry of Agriculture said that Yemen exports 30 percent of its agricultural produce to the Kingdom.
The government’s policy is usually to export first and then send the rest to cover the local market because of the financial gains from shipping tomatoes at high prices.
“In the last three months our exports to Saudi Arabia were less than usual because many farmers stopped working so produced less – and also because the local prices increased and so farmers preferred to sell locally,” said Al-Junaid.
At a wholesale market in Qa’a Jahran, Ma’abar, farmers auction their produce by the truckload where a 20-kilo crate is eventually sold for between YR 9,000 to YR 12,000 (between USD 35 and USD 50).
Official reports from the Ministry of Agriculture state that tomato farming does not exceed one percent of the total agricultural produce in Yemen. According to 2010 reports, Yemen produced over a million tons of vegetables in that year – around 262 thousand tons of which were tomatoes. This was despite the high demand and despite the fact that agriculture is one of the largest sectors in Yemen with over 53 percent of the labor force working in the industry, contributing to between 10 and 15 percent of the GDP.
The Agriculture Ministry says that tomato farming has in fact decreased since 1990, when more than 276 thousand tons were produced. But because of the lack of government support for agriculture, farmers abandoned their trade for more financially rewarding jobs.
The increased prices have also affected vegetable dealers who realize that unless they sell the produce for very high prices there is no profit to be made. Majed Al-Faqeh who owns a fruit and vegetable shop in Sana’a says that he buys a 20-kilo crate of tomatoes from the wholesale dealers or farmers for 11,000 (around USD 45) and winds up selling each kilo for YR 600, giving him just YR 1,000 profit and not worth the work.
“It is not only tomatoes, many other vegetables have astronomically increased in prices and this season over 40 percent of farmers have stopped producing vegetables,” said Al-Faqieh.
Farmers confirm this and say that it is due to diesel prices affecting their business. Farmer Abdulelah Al-Qurashi, who owns a vegetable farm 15 kilometers north of Hodeida, said he can’t pump the water from the wells because the pumps operate on diesel.
Another farmer from Hodeida, Abdu Al-Ahdal, who produces tomatoes, said that he is still working but is heavily affected by the increase in fuel prices.
“It is natural that there is a scarcity of tomatoes during this season but this year it is worse than ever. Now we have to buy 200 liters of diesel at YR 25,000 (around USD 104) while it was YR 60 a liter, or YR 12,000 for 200 liters, before the uprising began.
“A number of farmers stopped working and said it is not worth it. They are offering their farms for sale. Also electricity has affected our work and the lack of care for the soil has rendered it useless for agriculture,” said Al-Qurashi. “We will need another 20 years to recover the lost fertile lands.”