Nigerian bakers turn to potato puree amid high wheat prices
In the midst of a sunlit room in Nnewi, south-east Nigeria, a woman measures out four parts of sweet potato puree – the colour of apricot – into a large basin containing six parts wheat flour. She adds sugar, butter and other ingredients for making bread.
Six hands lift the basin to empty it into a mixer and, later in the process, the bakers would work the mix into dough, cutting out various sizes and toss them into pans, ready for the oven.
Minutes later, straight from the oven, milky yellow loaves stand arranged on shelves and the scent of baking, mingled with light wood smoke, warm the morning air. A car parked outside begins to take delivery to shops and roadside retailers around town.
The puree, paste made from crushing a new breed of potato called orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) after steaming it, is becoming the new normal in bread-making in Nigeria, where a good number of bakeries have fallen on hard times following record jumps in the cost of producing bread.
Twenty-nine at the time, Maryann Okoli, who owns the bakery, returned one day in 2018 to Port Harcourt from a workshop in Umuahia to convert her one-hectare cucumber plantation into an OFSP farm because the latter offered enchanting prospects.
“I ran into them, I am someone that is very inquisitive. I said ‘I want to know this thing more,’” she told PREMIUM TIMES. “But I got more attracted because of the health benefits, the nutritional benefits.”
After putting it on Facebook, calls came from all over Nigeria and she was inundated with calls from other parts of Africa also. Interestingly, it was only the processing of OFSP flour and puree she was doing at that point.
But supply constraints stood in her way, for her farm was not yet in perfect shape and, as the pressure mounted, it was clear to her she would soon be faced with unmet demands.
To make up for the hiatus in sales from the 10 months between land clearing and harvest, Ms Okoli would buy the potato from some parts of northern Nigeria, where it was mass-produced and then resell. Helped by the vibrant market, she sold the entire produce from the one hectare within two weeks.
With 17 staff now on her payroll, Ms Okoli produces at least 5,000 loaves of bread a day and said she makes 100 per cent gain from producing juice from OFSP.
With varying degrees of success, bakers like Ms Okoli are turning to OFSP puree to make a new kind of bread in Nigeria that is cost-effective and at the same time promises great health benefits, a culinary breakthrough that could radically redefine how bread is produced and priced in a country with the highest cost of bread in Africa.
That shift seems fitting at a time when record spikes in the prices of wheat flour and sugar is making bread, once a staple affordable for the poor, a luxury to middle-income households. Nigeria’s food inflation touched its 15-year high in April 2021, with cereal and bread being two of the key drivers cited by the statistics office. By May 2022, the inflation rate stood at 16.82 per cent.