Soothing Mozambique's hungry population

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After days of rioting in Mozambique over soaring food prices earlier this month, the BBC's Karen Allen in Maputo asks whether the government's decision to provide subsidies will be enough to calm the anger - or if more radical solutions are required.

A Mozambican policeman stands near a burning tyre on a street of Maputo, 02/09 Thirteen people died in riots in Maputo over soaring food prices

Mozambique's leaders used Victory Day - a time to pay homage to the country's independence heroes - to try to soothe a bruised population.

Many Mozambicans live in urban squalor, and most were furious at a recent 17% hike in the price of bread.

"After a slow rise in the price in fuel, water and then bread, it was an accumulation of factors that led to the unrest," explains Lola Castro from the UN's World Food Programme.

Thirteen people died during riots in the capital, Maputo, prompting the government into a U-turn which will offer some short-term relief.

The price of a 250g loaf of bread is back to six meticais ($0.16; £0.11) thanks to government subsidies - subsidies which last week ministers said they could not afford.

It is a move which has been welcomed by large swathes of this largely urban population, but does nothing to address Mozambique's underlying vulnerability to rises in global food prices.

Wheat economics

Mozambique has been widely praised by international donors for its economic policy since its civil war ended in 1993.

But the benefits have yet to reach the poorest sections of society have not felt the benefits and the country still struggles to feed itself.

Poor infrastructure, and a terrain prone to drought and floods, make it hard to grow wheat in large quantities.

Farmer with cassava, file image The hardy cassava root has been touted as a possible solution to Mozambique's problems

"The country needs something like 537,000 tonnes of wheat per year, but we are producing only 22,000 tonnes," laments Mozambique's Minister of Agriculture Soares Nhaca as he emerges from a grilling on state TV.

The country is forced to rely on imports largely from South Africa and Russia.

A rise in global wheat prices, and Russia's decision to ban wheat exports until the year's end, has hit millions of people in Mozambique.

Wheat prices have risen by 30% in recent months, and so the additional cost has been passed on to the consumer in the form of bread price rises.

To make matters worse, the metical has also lost ground against the South Africa rand this year, making imported wheat even more expensive for hard-pressed Mozambican consumers.

Meagre salary

The Mafolala district of Maputo has been badly hit by the rising cost of living.

Mozambique map

It was the epicentre of last week's violent protests, and the marks from scorched tyres still stain the streets.

Car mechanic Manuel Sito, whose workbench is on the pavement at the side of the road, says the price rise has hurt him and his family.

His salary of $20 a week means he has to pick and choose how he spends his hard-earned cash.

"I'm having to make sacrifices, I've got a four-year-old baby and I must pay for my young niece to go to school, then there's the bus fare and her lunch to consider," he says.

Changing tastes

Mozambique has its back against the wall, and it is likely to be vulnerable for many years to come.

It is expensive to move what little wheat the country grows to the urban centres like Maputo, explains Mr Nhaca.

The roads are in a pitiful state, and most of the people who need food live in Maputo or further along the coastline.

So Mr Nhaca is on a personal mission to convince his compatriots to alter their taste in food.

He is promoting bread made partly from cassava flour - a root vegetable which grows in plentiful numbers here in Mozambique.

But locals expressed little appetite for cassava bread at the market, so Mr Nhaca may have a battle on his hands.

Government subsidies are only a short-term measure to ease the burden of rising food prices.

Some 54% of the population is unemployed in Mozambique, so there is no tax base to sustain the subsidies in the long term.

For the time-being, the country is hostage to the global markets that shape the price of food.

Meanwhile, the challenge to change the tastes of the Mozambican palate continues.

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