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Bakers Bring Capital to Its Knees

An attempt to alter how a staple of the Afghan diet is priced prompts a one-day strike
By IWPR staff

Ali Ahmad was in a panic. The cloth seller in west Kabul had invited 150 guests to a Koran recitation party only to discover that, on the day of the event, local bakeries had declared a lightning strike over a cut in the price of nan bread imposed by the local government.

What would he serve his guests?

Nan is a staple of the Afghan diet. A flat bread, it is baked in oblong pieces, about the length of a man's arm. Sometimes it is used instead of a plate, with meat placed on top. Torn off by hand, it is served at every meal.

Most nan is produced throughout the day by the hundreds of small bakeries in Kabul. For many poor Afghans, it is their only source of food.

When Ahmad learned that the local bakeries had gone on strike, he sent four friends out to scout the capital to find enough nan to serve for lunch.

By the time the party started, Ahmad said he was so nervous he didn't even realise he was wearing two different style shoes as he was welcoming his guests.

The bakers went on one-day strike earlier this month after the city government ordered that the price of bread be reduced and that the price should be based on weight rather than size.

City officials set the price at 15 afghanis, or 30 US cents, per kilo of nan. That's two afghanis, or four cents, less than the bread makers' association said the price should be.

Previously, the government had regulated the price of nan by the piece and set the weight of a standard piece at 200 grams.

But consumers had complained that the size of the nan had shrunk and the weight had gradually dropped to about 150 grams per piece. They said the city did not have enough inspectors to regulate the weight at all the bakeries.

The dispute pitted hundreds of small bakers in the capital, who say their costs are increasing and who are subject to municipal price controls, against local people who say they need to have inexpensive food.

By imposing the new rules, the city sought to curb the growing number of bakeries and prevent bread makers from cheating customers by selling underweight nan.

"Selling bread by the kilo was the suggestion of the bakers, which came to us through their representatives," said Nisar Ahmad Habibi, Kabul's municipal price control director. "So we decided to enforce it."

The strike caught city officials by surprise and served to underline the importance nan plays in the social and economic life of the city.

Mohammed Karim, 50, who lives in the Qali Zaman Khan district, said his family depends on nan. "Most of our family's food consists of bread and sweet tea," he said.

Khadija, a teacher at Zarghona High School, stayed home from work the day the bakeries struck to make bread for her family. She said feeding her own children was more important than going to school.

For some, the bakers' strike was a bonanza. Many Kabul residents bought cakes and biscuits when nan was not available. Sadiq, a cookie seller in the Third Macroyan district, immediately increased his prices.

"In the morning when I opened my shop, there was a row of people waiting to buy cake and biscuits," he said. "I raised the price of cake and biscuits." By the end of the day, he was sold out.

But others said their businesses were hurt. Nasrullah Malek, the owner of Mohabat Restaurant in Jad-i-Maiwand district, said he prepared almost twice as much rice as he normally would as a substitute when nan was not available. "But our customers . . . demanded other main dishes with bread, and [when I couldn't provide it] they were unhappy and left,” he said.

City officials reacted by warning the bakers that they would lose their licenses if the strike continued, noting that there were more than 200 people waiting for licenses to start bakeries. Meanwhile, companies that mass produce bread by machine offered to step up their production.

The city did, however, agree to delay enforcement of the new price controls and, after meeting with the bakers' association, agreed to determine what it actually costs bakers to produce nan.

Haji Nejatullah, the head of the bakers' association, said the cost of importing flour was a major element of the bakers' expenses. "We bring flour from abroad, and we [have to] buy it with [foreign] currency, while the bakers sell the bread in afghanis," he said. In addition, he said that bakers also lose money when they exchange small denomination afghanis for US dollars.

He warned that the bakers would go on strike again unless the city took into account their other expenses, such as the cost of fuel, rent and salaries.

By last week, the bakers’ union and city officials agreed a price of 16 afghanis per kilo. For now, there is an uneasy truce in the capital's bread wars.

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