Nigeria’s average retail price of 2kg bag of flour (Golden Penny) accelerated, according to the statistics office, by about 35 per cent in the 12 months to May. So also did the price of a 50kg bag of sugar, which in its case scaled up by 35 per cent within the same period, going by National Sugar Development Council’s figures. That is hammering the cost of bread to record highs, with a new pricing announced by bakers on Monday.
But somewhere in Nnewi, Anambra State, a farmer turned baker is using a new breed of potato, dense with several disease-fighting micronutrients, to make bread, snacks and other foods, that are not only cheaper than their popular equivalents but are especially beneficial to health.
MaryAnn Okoli, the bakery owner, provides insight into how she is helping make bread affordable to her community amid nationwide shortage and how backing from international charity organisations is making that happen.
PT: You studied Statistics, how come you are now in agriculture? What motivated you to begin agriculture?
Ms Okoli: It’s a passion and also what I do hear about farmers in the U.S., how farmers are the richest people in the U.S. So I have an uncle over there that always tells me how rich farmers are there, how mechanised their farming is. So I started thinking if these people can do that, we Nigerians can do that. Everything is about determination. You start somewhere. All those short-term crops that are profitable. I started with a cucumber farm in Port Harcourt in 2017. The next year 2018, I was on it and because of my dedication and focus on that field. I normally used labourers from the Middle Belt.
So I learnt more practical skills from them. I paid them, I would be there. I learnt practical then I would now add my own knowledge and do it. Because of my dedication, I was able to run into one organisation, DFID project then in the Niger Delta. Market Development of the Niger Delta (MADE) is the name of the project sponsored by DFID. So they sent me to a training in Umuahia. They said because of your focus in this thing you are doing, can you also work with us on cassava to improve the variety of cassava, vitamin A cassava? I said why not?
So the programme was training for master village seed entrepreneurs. They chose three people per state. I was among the three people from Rivers State they chose. The nine states in Niger Delta had 27 people at Umuahia. The training was done in partnership with HarvestPlus and IITA, Ibadan. It was a three-day training.
After the training, they gave us an assignment to go and train 40 people per person. They wanted to empower them with an improved variety of cassava, Vitamin A cassava. Vitamin A cassava is bio-fortified cassava, rich in Vitamin A, 100 percent Vitamin A. It’s always yellow in colour. The tuber is yellow in colour, it’s not white. I was the first person to deliver that project in the whole of the Niger Delta within a week.
They were impressed and wanted to know more about me, especially how I was able to do this training, gathering 40 people. That’s how I joined this organisation and they made me their service provider because of my dedication and how I gave them results and delivered their work.
It’s from there they started sending me to processors and exporters’ programmes and training.
It’s from them that I heard about this Vitamin A cassava. It’s from that programme I came in contact with people discussing this orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP). I ran into them, I am someone that is very inquisitive. I said, “I want to know more about this thing.” But it (attracted) me more because of the health benefits, the nutritional benefits. So when I went back to Port Harcourt, I converted my cucumber farm to this potato farm.
I started marketing it. I started buying. I asked for contacts of people doing it before. I got it from them, processed it into flour, with my own initiative and mixed it because I don’t have equipment there. I started marketing it before my own farm would be ready in ten months because I have planted one hectare. I’ve got a large market (including) online. I was able to sell my farm (potato produce) in two weeks, the whole one hectare. So that’s how I started. I started sponsoring myself, looking for where to learn the value addition of this thing I’m doing today. That’s how I started.
I did a documentary on it in 2019 because then a university hospital called me, that they heard about me, that this sweet potato is doing a lot of wonders to their patients with eye problem, BP and diabetes. I now said I have to do a documentary on those people we’ve been giving the potato to eat (to heal them of) ulcer, arthritis and rheumatism – life testimonies. It’s on YouTube on our page. So we did a live documentary. After the life documentary, we now observed that this potato is one of the major things Nigerians need to fight malnutrition because it contains a lot of things that help to reduce the dietary diseases people are suffering from today. We now thought that if you give them the tuber, some may not like to chew it and it won’t go far if you don’t convert it to a byproduct that people can get at times. That’s how we came to think about these confectioneries – bread. By the grace of God, we were able to set up a bakery, where we make bread, confectioneries like meat pie, burger, chin-chin, Shawarma.
We use it for juice, we use it for African salad, we use it for stew. Instead of tomato paste, we use it for paste and it’s very very good. We use it for chips, we use it for flour. There are a whole lot of other things and we are still developing other things in addition to it. Presently now, I am using it for pap, powdered pap. And that one is another super product that a lot of all these people … (with) health challenges … like taking in Nnewi. But because I’ve not got NAFDAC number on it, I do it on demand. It’s food-to-food fortification. If you see the pap, it will be in powdered form just the way you do custard. Just that it rises more than custard.
PT: How long have you been into these sweet potato products?
Ms Okoli: I started producing it in 2018. I started producing the root, marketing it, multiplying the vine, because of all those training I attend. Most times I sponsored myself. I will (hear) that this person is doing this on OFSP especially research institutes like (the one at) Umudike. I would go and ask them, “Is there anything, anything I can gain from you people?” I would pay. I paid irrespective of the cost. I would pay because of the passion I have for it. I would pay, I would learn it, I would come and practise it and start it up. I would take the risk and start it up as a commercial business.
PT: Since you started, how can you describe the demand for it since 2018 till now?
Ms Okoli: There was a time I did a Facebook ad using my company name then. I had a company name I was using then. The kind of call I received on this OFSP thing in a day then, people calling from so many states in Nigeria even from (other) African countries. But because many of them have not seen me themselves, they googled and saw it. But because of the fear of the online business and maybe the logistics aspect of (it). But I did then. I sent many to Lagos.
People were even calling, “Can I be your distributor in Lagos?” But then we were only doing flour and potatoes (puree). The potato (puree) doesn’t have a long shelf life. So, we couldn’t go far, we stopped. But in terms of vine, we supplied to many farmers within the country and even the tubers, they won’t buy much because they only know how to use it for consumption.
The business is a very nice business and the result is quick. We’ve been hearing a lot of testimonies in terms of the value addition, which is from conversion of this orange-fleshed potato into confectioneries and other by-products. When we opened the factory, the International Potato Center got to know about us in one food fare we attended in Uyo by HarvestPlus. So they visited our factory from Kano. They were doing the project in Kano then.
They saw what we were doing. They visited a week later. They were impressed. They now wrote to their head office in Kenya, saying they had seen a private sector (business) in Nigeria that is diversifying, that will give us what we want and they said okay. They sponsored some people in this country to come and learn what I am doing in my factory. I did a three-day training for them. There were eighteen people from six geopolitical zones. After the training, they now published it on their social media platforms.
That’s how we started having some referrals from Twitter, especially all those relevant people in donor agencies like from HarvestPlus. It’s the International Potato Center that really brought us out in Nigeria on this value addition. Just that training we did for them. From there, we started.
A lot of organisations like USAID, I have done a programme for them under Feed the Future. I trained women for them. I did value-addition. I’ve also partnered with the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, I’ve partnered with HarvestPlus, and a whole lot of other organisations just to make sure that this knowledge gets to the grassroots.
PT: Since you’ve been partnering with other organisations and you have been training people, have you had other bakeries that have adopted this potato flour/puree?
Ms Okoli: Like Delight Bread in Kano. It’s the top bakery in Kano State, owned by Kabir. I don’t know the surname. It’s among the people this International Potato Center sponsored to come to my bakery. So when he went back, he introduced this bread. They already have a brand that has entered the market. They are a very big bakery. So what they do is they do it once in a while and people like it.
Likewise, in Ikot Ekpene, Association of Master Bakers and Caterers of Nigeria (AMBCN). I am the one training AMBCN on how to use the inclusion of OFSP in bread. You know actually you’re not going to use only the potato. You’re using 40 per cent potato and 60 per cent flour. That’s the only way it can rise and give you what you want. The bakery there (Delight Bread in Kano), there was a time they said “(Supply) potato to me.” I did. So I don’t know whether they are still doing it. But I have sent about 300kg to them or 400kg after the training.
PT: How has the 40 to 60 percent proportion helped to cut the cost of production for bakeries in Nigeria like for you in particular?
Ms Okoli: It’s highly profitable. Wherever I go for training, especially these master bakers (MBAN) training, after training them because it’s always practical training, we always calculate the profit margin. In a bag of flour, when you add 40 percent of OFSP to a bag of flour, you are making a minimum of N5,000 to N8,000 profit in a bag. The one we made in Uyo, the owner of the bakery, calculated it. When you minus the cost of potatoes, you are getting N5,000 to N8,000 profit. So the owner of the bakery was like when we calculated it, we did his own and we got about N12,000 and he was amazed. You make more money by adding potatoes.
PT: Are you aware that a good number of bakeries have shut down due to one challenge or the other and how do you think this can be resolved?
Ms Okoli: A lot of bakeries have shut down because of the high increase in bakery ingredients like flour and sugar. A bag of sugar now is above N24,500, a bag of flour about N22,000 depending on the flour. We have different types of flour. We have the one of quality like high-grade wheat and low-grade wheat. You can’t compare Dangote and Golden Penny Prime. They call it number one. It’s number one. It’s high-quality wheat, while classic in the same Golden Penny is low-wheat. So there’s always a thousand differences in their prices. When you look at it, butter is N19,000 per carton. So when you look at all those things, with the fact that the bakery requires a number of workers to deliver, with any small mismanagement you are likely to fail.
But in adding OFSP, the inclusion of this 40 per cent puree to bread, it helps a lot. If you check, you make like a profit of N5,000 on a bag in a day. And people do like 10 bags in a day to 20 bags in a day. That has already helped you reduce the impact of high costs of other ingredients you are using in making bread.
PT: How easy it is for you to source for raw materials because you know that this OFSP is increasingly gaining acceptance. How easy is it for you to get your potato, to keep up to standard because you are producing every day? So, how are you doing? What magic are you using?
Ms Okoli: Just like I said, I made mention of the International Potato Center. I told you that after their training in my bakery, they linked me up. Apart from helping to create awareness on their social media, they linked me with all their farmers in Nigeria. It’s because of them I have farmers in Kano, Kaduna, Kebbi because they have done a huge project around these states. So what I did was that the period they came I was in need of OFSP because it was a huge challenge to source the root because it’s dry season. So they linked me to their farmers.
They would help me confirm the availability of potatoes from farmers, telling them “we now have a major uptaker.” So they gave me their number and I gave them my number. So there is no day people would not call me. I have potatoes in such a place to supply to you.
After the dry season, I was like let me sign an MOU because even in the South East, there are lots of politicians, big people that want to venture into agriculture but their only problem is uptakers to take what they do. So I signed an MOU with some farmers. They produce for me and I take.
But after the MOU, I also saw that there are challenges with the MoU. Because some farmers, you agree with them that they plant in sequence for you and they will go and plant together. And when they plant, they might not even tell you that Cylas has entered and they will supply it to you like that and you will lose a whole lot of money because Cylas moves faster on the ground than when it is inside the soil. Once Cylas affects it on the ground, if you harvest it unknowingly and it spreads on the potatoes you plan to use in one month or two months, it will affect it and maybe within two weeks to three weeks, it will eat it up.
PT: Tell us, what is Cylas?
Ms Okoli: Cylas is a pest that is disturbing that potato. But all these challenges are what I have listed and sent to the International Potato Center that came to my bakery last November to do a documentary for production of my puree to bread. They did it in two days. They even went as far as going to roadside sellers distributing it, end-users, and family people using it to document it. They said they would still work on it to get whatever it is that will help to reduce the Cylas.
The Federal Ministry of Agriculture has also tried on their own by linking me with their farmers. They are also doing projects that are sharing vine to so many states just to adopt this OFSP because of its nutritional benefits. Even as of last year, I was so popular in Nigeria that lots of people will call me.
PT: You seem not to use potato flour for the production, you make use of puree. What is puree?
Ms Okoli: Puree is a potato paste we use for bread. Not the flour. We process to flour, we process to puree. The puree is cost-effective. Flour is costly because it has dry matter content. So if you use flour to bake, it will not give you the colour and your bread and pastries will be on the high side because it doesn’t have dry matter content but if you use puree, you make more profit and the nutrient is more concentrated, the colour, the paste. Everything you need is there.
PT: Clearly, it’s better to use puree. How do you make the puree?
Ms Okoli: Puree is just a mash of OFSP roots. You cook it and mash it. That’s all. It will be in a paste form like tomato paste and you add 40 per cent to your bread. You add some percentage of wheat flour and also yeast to make it rise. If you use only wheat flour for bread without yeast, your bread will not rise.
PT: Is the colour of the output the same thing as that of normal bread?
Ms Okoli: No. Some people will think it’s a normal orange colour but it’s the potato’s colour.
PT: You mentioned the nutritional benefits, do diabetic patients eat it?
Ms Okoli: Yes. It depends on the preservative and this type of bread lasts up to a week, sometimes two weeks once you don’t expose it to sun. If you expose it to the sun, because it’s Vitamin A, the potato has 100 percent Vitamin A. It will take away the Vitamin A and it will not be as orange as it was originally. Sun makes bread spoilt whether wheat or OFSP bread. When it is not under sun but it’s under shade, it will stay up to two weeks.
PT: What challenge do you face as a woman in this sector because like you said everybody calls you, ministries call you, NGOs call you, international organisations call you when it comes to OFSP? So what challenges do you face regarding your gender?
Ms Okoli: In terms of that, I gave birth in 2020 when I opened that bakery. I’m glad that I married a man who understands. What I do is that the kids will be at home, because I travel regularly. But I will make sure that everything I am supposed to do as a woman, I do it.
PT: You know you are teaching men, how do they respond to you when you are teaching them? What does it look like?
Ms Okoli (Laughs): They are always excited. For example, when I went to Uyo to train master bakers in the south-south, the vice president of MBAN came from Warri. When I started it because I normally introduce myself before I go into practical sessions with them. So when they were at the hall, the man stood up and said “I have heard about you,” that one lady from Nnewi that is using potatoes to do bread. But what they always comment is “how can a small girl like you….” They often expect to see one aged person like that that they have been hearing about, that how did a small girl like me, how did I start?
They are inquisitive about how I started, that I have got to this stage at my age and every other thing. So the impression is like that. It comes from men and women and I will just be laughing.
PT: So let’s get to the aspect of production, using electricity. How do you manage power when it comes to production, now that there is even fuel scarcity?
Ms Okoli: When I was building the bakery, I actually knew that there was a poor power condition in the location of my bakery. Sometimes they give us electricity once a month. Because of that, I had to make sure that my oven is not an electric oven. It’s an industrial oven that can bake four bags of flour at once. It is powered by firewood or gas.
So I didn’t try to go near the electricity. My milling machine is manual. It uses diesel to work. My bread mixer uses a motor. That one doesn’t take time for the function you use it for. That one is the one that uses electricity. And I bought a generator that can power the electric equipment. Once you mix your bread, you convert it to a manual milling machine that is powered by diesel.
But now the electricity supply is improving. The only thing that the electricity can do for me is just to power the mixing machine and mixing of bread doesn’t take time. So it makes me not have much of a challenge with electricity.
The only challenge we are facing now is the cost of diesel and that machine doesn’t consume much diesel because right now we are doing light production like 15 bags of flour, that is wheat flour before you mix potato puree.
PT: How many days? So you use fifteen bags of flour?
Ms Okoli: I use this quantity because the market generally is slow now. Our major challenge is also vehicles. We are able to have three vehicles going for supply. Two shuttle buses and one small car going for supply. If we have more vehicles, we will be producing up to 50 bags in a day because our oven capacity can produce 50 bags a day. It’s just the motor that will be distributing it, taking it to other areas. It’s just a few communities in our local government that are selling the bread (for now).
Sometimes if I am around and I say “let me go and see customers again,” I will supply bread with my car. We will do like 20 bags that day and we will sell them all that day.
PT: Like how much do you spend on diesel every day or firewood?
Ms Okoli: Because of the rise in the cost of everything now. At least, we use about N10,000 worth of firewood. Because we buy it in a truck, we can buy firewood for like N150,000 and use it for a minimum of three weeks. Because of the increase in the price of diesel, we use N2,000 worth of diesel every day. Before, we used N2,000 diesel for four, five days. Then we bought N200, now it’s N650, N700 in Nnewi. But the challenge again in potato is we don’t have curing facilities in Nigeria. The only people that have it in Africa is Ghana. There is a US company in Ghana partnering with the Ghanaian government on this project. In fact as at last year, the OFSP was one of the major revenue earners for Ghana.
The US company processes the potatoes and exports them to their country. So they have this curing facility. That curing facility can preserve this potato for nine months. Nothing will happen to it. Because the peak of potato is in the rainy season. Potatoes need water. So dry season production costs a lot. What this company does is they mobilise with the help of the Ghanaian government. A lot of farmers produce. They cure.
I tried to speak with the US man there in the company and he told me how I will do and a whole lot of things. But because I was not financially buoyant, I didn’t have the capacity to do it then so I had to hold on. And then NIRSAL Plc and Diaris when they heard about me in a seminar in Yola, they called me. They said I should take snapshots of my factory and production and send them. They now said they don’t offer credit but they guarantee that there is money Mastercard foundation gave Sterling Bank for women in agriculture, 70 per cent women.
So they linked me up. They called the Anambra CBN branch. I went. But because of one or two politics in Nigeria, the man was reluctant and at a stage, I got pissed off. I left. But NIRSAL Plc, they tried. They even went as far as calling themselves, and Sterling Bank, Awka, the person in charge and sending a message to the head office, Sterling Bank to make sure that N20 million so that I can work on that curing facility.
That is the major challenge we have. If I can get that curing facility, all the problems I have with potatoes will be solved. Likewise every other processor, It will ease them to enter it. Because during this dry season, it is costly. Many people can’t buy. A bag now (March 2022) is almost N12,000. But in the rainy season, many people will be calling you at N5,000 per bag, 1600 per kg. Because those northerners that do mechanised farming N80 per kg, you buy, they bring for you. So if you have a curing facility, you can store them there.
PT: Your bakery is a busy one, how many staff do you have in your bakery?
Ms Okoli: Currently, I have 17 staff. I like employing more youths to encourage them to work hard.
PT: Funds are hard to come by, how were you able to raise capital?
Ms Okoli: There is this loan CBN is giving. In fact it’s one of the meetings we went for. Then I was using a government-owned facility in Port Harcourt. I would send my products, they would process it and I’d pay for services because I didn’t have money to set up a factory or to buy equipment.
When MADE took me to Edo 2018 to train some people on the OFSP value chain especially the flour and the bread, we were able to meet the CBN and the governor and one organisation, a catering school that CBN wanted to involve in training people. They wanted to test-run this project then in Nigeria. So when I heard of it, I went back to Port Harcourt. I started looking for organisations CBN gave that approval to train because one of their criteria before you get that loan was that you must attend a five-day training on entrepreneurship, time management, agriculture, value chain, a whole lot.
So I attended the training, and I applied. Luckily, I was given the loan. It took them one year before they processed the loan. I was among the few beneficiaries that got the loan in November 2019. But I started using it in February 2020. Then I started the foundation. I didn’t want to open the bakery in Port Harcourt, I wanted to open it in Anambra State, where I won’t be disturbed by any lout or anybody.
So I just cleared the place, did the foundation, and built the factory. The money CBN gave only helped me with equipment; the loan was for the equipment. But in the process of all these things I am doing, I opened an NGO that focuses on nutrition using these bio-fortified foods.
So my NGO was among those CBN later gave appointment to, this particular EDI (Entrepreneurial Development Institute) in Anambra State. The money I raised from that project was what helped me to build the structure.
I used their money for equipment and I used the money I raised to start production. I also offered training. So the training I did also generated me money to run the bakery to this stage (the current stage) that is now generating money.
PT: What kind of follow up do you do for farmers that you are training and can you say your training has impacted their lives?
Ms Okoli: I’ve trained a lot of farmers in Nigeria in Rivers State, Anambra State, Abia State, Ebonyi State. What I normally train them on is good agronomic practices. Good agronomic practices simply means how good you will do your farming, how to economise your input and get more. Spend less and get more – that is just the summary of good agronomic practices. Like this potato, if you don’t use quality vine, you won’t get good yield. I am introducing them to a lot of herbicides. Like cassava farmers, they will tell you that you will spend more money on cassava by weeding. But if they can use chemicals to weed, you will see that it will save them a whole lot of money and they will make more profit. So I do follow up on them. I call them. I am always there to answer their call, to guide them and to link them to the market. I visit them. On cucumber farming, I train farmers; cassava, I train farmers; Potato, I train farmers. So I do visit them. And before I train, I always make sure the market is available because that’s another challenge farmers are having. Some of them can produce. Those that have capacity to produce do but they won’t have a market. So they will lose their money and they will be discouraged.
PT: There is something you mentioned earlier when you said it’s difficult to get potatoes during the dry season. What do you do when it’s not available?
Ms Okoli: Like now, I also engage people to do dry season farming like in Benue. They have water. They do dry season farming. Their only challenge is the market. Like some parts in Rivers State that are water lines, they do.
Like Kebbi State. In Kebbi State they plant potatoes in November, December, January. There are lots of states that do dry season farming. It’s not even irrigation. It’s a swamp because you can do it in one area. Because of my network and contacts, I’m able to know all these things. So my own is to say okay they already know that I buy. So some of them call me.
A lot of people called me during this dry season and said “Can we produce dry season potatoes for you?” I accepted some and I rejected some.
PT: There are times when you don’t get potatoes during the dry season. What do you do during those periods?
Ms Okoli: Like last year as I told you, there were some times in a week that the factory would not work and we were paying salary. It’s part of the challenges. We wouldn’t work because there were no potatoes. Sometimes, there will be potatoes but, for example, there was a time when Kebbi people ordered potatoes. It took almost three weeks for them to come. And the whole potato rot in the vehicle bringing it because they covered it with tarpaulin. We don’t wait for our potatoes to finish before we order. But because of a logistics issue. Then we were doing only OFSP bread. All our bread was OFSP bread. So what we did last December was to introduce wholly white bread, that is wheat bread only, so that if we don’t have potatoes, we won’t shut down the bakery. We can be producing white till we get potato supply.
PT: Are these bread and pastries affordable to consumers?
Ms Okoli: We have a bread of N50, we have that of N100 at company price. We have the one of N40 that is just like doughnuts. We package it for them in 20 pieces in a nylon and those people sell it to all these children. The people who normally get are those from all these remote villages. Some of these people that because of hardship that don’t have money can buy it at N50. We sell it at N40 to the company price. They can buy it and eat it with Akara.
Mothers buy it for their children as a snack. There is one of N100 company price and they sell at N120 or N150. We have one for N220 and they sell at N300. We have the one of N300, N400, N500 at company price. So we have different sizes. We have for the poor, the masses and the rich.
The same thing with our juice. The juice is another centre of attraction in the OFSP value chain. There is no exhibition I will go to that people will not cluster at my exhibition stand because of juice. Once they buy one, they will come back with many customers. One, it’s very sweet and it’s natural.
Most people say that after drinking it, they go back home and sleep very well and we don’t add sugar to it. It’s just the potato. Once you add sugar, you have defeated the health benefits, the nutritional balance. That juice is another area where we have to reach the market.
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