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Needy Tunisians get food aid via text messages

For many Tunisians the lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus deprived them of jobs and in need of food aid
For many Tunisians the lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus deprived them of jobs and in need of food aid FETHI BELAID AFP
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Tunis (AFP)

A Tunisian NGO has set up a food bank that dispenses aid by text message to some 300 needy families rendered more vulnerable because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The initiative, which had been long in the making, was finally launched at the end of April to coincide with the start of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

It targets families who have lost jobs because of the lockdown imposed by Tunisia to contain the spread of the virus, like that of Messaouda Raouafi, a cleaning woman forced to stay indoors.

"Because of Ramadan and the lockdown I can no longer go out to work," said the 49-year-old.

"I cannot clean homes and earn money to feed my seven children."

Her family was among the 300 chosen by the women's affairs ministry and signalled to the NGO known as the "Banque Alimentaire Durable" or Sustainable Food Bank.

Under the initiative, Raouafi receives a code by text message allowing her to spend 40 to 60 Tunisian dinars (around $21-32) weekly at specially designated grocery stores.

With that money, Raouafi has been able to buy basic goods such as oil, milk, coffee and flour.

Farah, who runs a grocery store in the working-class district of Kram, is among those who signed up to take part in the project.

"The money is sent to us ahead of time -- that way the clients can buy what they want with the funds allocated to them," she said.

Farah said this works much better than allowing customers to buy on credit, a system that takes its toll on her own finances.

"In our area there are many poor families and unemployed people," she said, explaining why she decided to embrace the initiative.

- Aid and autonomy -

A member of the NGO, Aisha Zakraoui, said she hopes the initiative will grow so as to reach more needy families across Tunisia.

The NGO also aims to help families become more self-sufficient through training in skills such as growing their own vegetables or baking bread to sell.

"Our objective is to provide food aid to needy people and in exchange they agree to take part in initiatives aimed at integrating them socially and professionally," Zakraoui said.

Even before the virus outbreak, Tunisia has been struggling with economic and social hardship that has worsened since the country went into lockdown in March to battle the pandemic.

The government estimated that two million of Tunisia's 11.5 million population were in need of financial assistance during that time.

In March and April, the government made emergency handouts of 200 dinars to vulnerable families.

Tunisia, which has officially declared 1,000 cases of the novel coronavirus including 45 deaths, began easing its lockdown on May 4.

In the early days of the containment measures, several hundred Tunisians had demonstrated in working class districts of the capital demanding government support and protesting the lockdown.

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