Desert trafficking routes are studded with bunches of spaghetti
THE shifting sands of the Sahara have long been crossed by trade and smuggling routes. Traffickers send people and drugs north over the desert. But they have a problem: what to put in the empty trucks going back? The answer—pasta.
Some informed sources reckon that, apart from people, by weight pasta is probably the most smuggled product to cross the desert. Drug trafficking and gunrunning may earn fatter margins. But many smugglers diversify their load by pushing penne.
In part the trade is fuelled by subsidies in places such as Algeria, which spends about $28bn a year keeping down the price of food and energy. In Libya, which still subsidises food prices, even if somewhat erratically because of the civil war, 500g of pasta can be bought for 15-25 American cents. The same bag of pasta might cost 250 CFA francs ($0.50) in Timbuktu and about 800 CFA francs ($1.50) in Senegal or some of the posher parts of Bamako, the capital of Mali.
Another incentive to smuggle is found in west Africa. Under the region's customs union, imports of pasta face a tariff of 20% and also value-added tax of 15%.
Smugglers rarely answer surveys, so the facts around them are slippery. But a study in 2015 by the Economic Research Forum, a think-tank based in Egypt, found that pasta was the main product going across the Sahara from Algeria to Mali, accounting for about a third of the trade. The researchers reckoned that smugglers earned profits of 20-30%.
Their impact is not just being felt in markets south of the Sahara, but also on the desert itself. Many poke sticks of spaghetti into the sand as waymarks.