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.
Orange-fleshed sweet potato puree(Couertesy: Premium Times)
What passion, or optimism, could have engulfed a young woman to the point of selling her only investment, a promising one at that, and ploughing the proceeds into cultivating OFSP just because she heard people talking about the spud at a seminar?
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.
Maryann Okoli, the owner of the bakery:
"I ran into them, I am someone that is very inquisitive. I said ‘I want to know this thing more'. But I got more attracted because of the health benefits, the nutritional benefits."Out of the thrill of her new discovery and because that could help others solve their health problems, she started out talking to almost everyone she came across the gospel of the wonders of a miracle spud that not only holds the balm to wide-ranging ailments like diabetes and nutritional blindness but is also used for making foods as varied as pastries, juice and pap.
Because the market was incredibly huge, and she was raring to enlarge her share of it, Ms Okoli was soon confronted with a major challenge. 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.
"It’s highly profitable. Wherever I go for training, especially master bakers training, after training them because it’s always practical training, we always calculate the profit margin."
"In a bag of flour, when you include 40 per cent of OFSP to a bag of flour, you are making a minimum of NGN 5,000 to NGN 8,000 (about USD 12 to USD 19) profit in a bag. You make more money by adding potatoes."
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.
Flour and sugar account for roughly four-fifths of the input in bread production, according to Emmanuel Onuorah, president of Premium Breadmakers Association of Nigeria (PBAN).
Nigeria’s 5 year wheat import spend.
The commodity tops Nigeria’s food import bill every year, with the country’s wheat spend for 2021 approaching USD 2.5 billion from USD 1.5 billion two years earlier. That has set the government on a race to limit access to foreign exchange for wheat imports so that it could conserve its dollar reserves.
But that policy of limiting access to foreign currency, turning importers to the black market, is putting an enormous squeeze on the prices of bread, which soared by over one-third in the one year to March, while a good number of bakeries are facing failure to thrive.
"About 40 per cent of my members are closing shop."OFSP could be grown all year round in all states in the country because of its drought-resistant character, meaning the new bread-making method could prove sustainable.
In places like Kenya, Malawi and Rwanda, OFSP puree bread has seen large-scale commercialisation, and the International Potato Center (CIP) has asserted it could be one big answer to "the double burden of malnutrition in Africa and beyond."
OFSP bread has been discovered to have a longer shelf life than wheat-based bread and its wide acceptance by bakers could radically disrupt the bread market in Nigeria. According to the research body, the demand for OFSP puree in Kenya alone is estimated at USD 5 million every year.
Implying the innovation has gone beyond merely helping to scale back bread-making costs and offering several health benefits. It has come to be seen as a veritable tool for tackling rural poverty and is a good income source for farmers who supply the spud.
Bakers say producing OFSP bread is cheaper than when only wheat flour is used to make flour depending on how much of the puree is combined with wheat flour. Equally, it helps reduce the use and cost of sugar because the potato already contains some measure of sweetness.
Foods ranging from biscuit, chin-chin, meat pie, shawarma, burger, African salad, garri, pap, sweetener and juice to thickener for soup, stew, stodge and other pastries could be made from the potato.
Ms Okoli has been able to develop a recipe that enables her to make bread from as much as 40 per cent OFSP puree combined with 60 per cent wheat flour in order. But success in how much of the puree is used to make bread varies among bakers.
"The market is there because people like the bread very well."
Making the puree wasn’t viable for business, she said, because her original plan was to sell it as she was yet to start a bakery then. It ferments few days after processing because its shelf life is short, which means it would prove a hard sell to bakeries and other end users. The flour offered no true comfort either, for it is not as cost-effective as the puree.
"The flour is costly because it has dry matter content. If you use flour to bake, it will not give you the (usual) colour and your bread and pastries will be on the high side because it has dry matter content. But if you use puree … you make more profit and the nutrient is more concentrated, the colour, the paste."Funding from the Central Bank of Nigeria in 2019 eased the path for starting an initiative she named Esomchi Foundation and setting up a bakery in Nnewi the year after.
"It is the profit we are generating from Esomchi Foods, a private sector (business), that we are using to run Esomchi Foundation as a project we are doing."
MaryAnn Okoli leads a workshop on OFSP value addition (Courtesy: Esomchi Foundation)
Subsequent empowerment partnerships between her foundation and organisations like HarvestPlus (a unit of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture), United States Agency for International Development via its Feed the Future programme, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Association of Master Bakers and Caterers of Nigeria (AMBCN) followed.
There have been some research and development trials by SANO Foods, an organic food-focused company based in Lagos, part of which have led to how to improve the puree’s shelf life.
Odedoyin Monsuru, head of operations of SANO Foods:
"If you have continuous electricity supply or the period of outage is not too long for it to ferment. It is that fermentation you must avoid. If it doesn’t ferment, it can last up to eight months, twelve months."But consistent electricity is a tall order in Nigeria, which has one of the lowest electricity consumption in the world. SANO Foods has on its product mixed garri and fries made from potato and, besides the people and outlets it supplies all manner of organic convenience foods to, it was able to build a small, separate clientele of bread makers that bought its puree in the past.
That is where those with enthusiasm for food processing and value addition could borrow a leaf, considering that OFSP puree and flour processing can carve out a distinct market for itself that could help supply bakeries and may even fill the demand of individual end-users and households.
Like Ms Okoli, SANO Foods tried its hand at processing the potato into flour but the conversion ratio was quite disappointing as just one-eighth of the quantity of the potato processed could be turned to flour. So, the company has refrained from commercialising it.
Yet, it has its own beauties. The flour has a longer shelf life than the puree because it is in powder form, and it is better suited as a convenience food that could be easily purchased from supermarkets and stores, with its ready-mix nature making it a candidate for easy meal, fit to be prepared at home as snacks and pastries for adults and kids alike.
In a December 2021, SANO Foods, which also runs a bakery, said its puree could help cut over 30 percent of bread production costs. The firm collaborated with the Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi (FIIRO) in Lagos in a seminar planned to promote awareness last year.
It has held similar programmes with the National Agency for Food & Drug Administration and Control, AMBCN Abuja, Lagos and Osun states chapters as well as the Nigerian Economic Empowerment Development Strategy.
Originally, SANO Foods went into a partnership with AMBCN with the expectation that the partnership would help open up the OFSP bread market but has now fallen out of favour with the association on conflict of interest grounds.
An official at SANO Foods spoke of the failure of AMBCN to honour its agreement to promote the puree among its member because of the latter’s refusal to grease the palm of the union’s leadership with cash running into millions of naira, an affirmation of how Nigeria’s graft-ridden Establishment often kills masterstroke ideas that could benefit humanity.
SANO Foods said it had already gone into production before that happened and, consequently, about 80 percent of the puree it produced for that purpose was wasted. In some way, it put paid to its push to drive the consumption of bread among Lagos’s estimated 20 million people.
The setback has forced it to park the ambition of continuing puree supply to the four bakeries it was selling the puree. Distribution to them has now taken the back seat until the end of the current planting season.
The company has itself cultivated vast OFSP farmland in Ogun State to ease sourcing for potato roots and is optimistic the backward integration push will help cut costs.
Teething problems and breakthroughs
At the early stage of experimentation, a number of bakeries faced difficulties in getting the OFSP dough to rise and in making it fluffy after introducing the puree to the mix and that had implications for the texture and look of the bread. It came out flat, unlike wheat-based bread.
Observations from trials revealed the greater the proportion of the puree the higher the likelihood the dough will struggle to rise, making the bread to be flat.
Getting it right still remains a challenge of the recipe and is forcing some bakers to cut the proportion of puree to flour to as low as 10 percent and others to 20 percent.
Ms Okoli said she has been able to turn the corner and now uses as much as four parts puree with six parts wheat flour, with her bread almost physically the same as conventional wheat-based bread.
Bunarich bakery's OFSP bread dough did not rise the first day the recipe was trialled in neighbouring Omega Bakery. Both bakeries are located in Ibeju Lekki, a suburb of western Lagos.
Irenosen Ohafina, The Owner of Bunarich bakery:
"So whenever I am doing this one now, I normally double my yeast. You know why it’s like that? You know that potato puree, you have to freeze it."She used to buy puree from SANO Foods. Locals, who are largely unlearned, are able to differentiate her OFSP bread from other types of bread because of the colour and it’s difficult explaining the health benefits to them. But she said the recipe has helped her scale back production costs.
"So that ice will slow down the yeast because normally even if you are using (purely) wheat flour, if you mix with cold water, the one you mix with cold water will take a longer time to come up before the other one."
SANO Foods admitted if it is able to succeed in ramping up the OFSP puree composition in its bread to say 40 percent and meaningfully reduce costs, the bakery will cut the price of its bread.
"The drive is to make people eat healthy with little cost. People always say eating healthy is expensive. No. what we are preaching at SANO Foods is that people should be able to afford healthy food. Even the low-income earners should be able to afford it."If we can crash it, if we can make it, the cost of production to be very low, that will be perfect for us. We will definitely bring down the price of bread and make people go for it and people can afford it.
Research institute FIIRO has made advancement in enhancing the OFSP value chain and has developed a process technology for manufacturing high-quality shelf-stable puree from OFSP.
The institute can now fabricate various unit operations for its production for small and medium-scale entrepreneurs.
"My organisation has also established appropriate process technology for producing crunchy baked cookies that are 100 percent OFSP, OFSP meal (fermented or unfermented) and OFSP flour that can be utilised in food formulations such as in noodles production and confectionery products."
Dr Oluwatoyin Oluwole (Courtesy: Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi)
The Federal Government’s intervention is crucial, said Mrs Oluwole, who is optimistic OFSP is capable of enhancing food and nutrition security in the country and could help promote reduction of refined sugar inclusion in baked products including bread.
"Adequate funds are also a limiting factor in developing OFSP value chain as both pre-harvest and post-harvest aspects of the value chain are both crucial for a sustainable OFSP value chain."Mrs Oluwole feels awareness of the use, cost benefits and nutritional benefits of OFSP is still low in Nigeria compared to its wider adoption in places like South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Ghana, Mozambique and Rwanda. FIIRO has made commendable progress in how much puree is combined with wheat in making bread.
"The Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi, Lagos in conjunction with National Root Crops Research Institute, Umudike will need to synergize on how to improve the supply chain of OFSP and its cultivation in which both organisations will be involved in pre-harvest and post-harvest activities of the OFSP supply chain respectively."
Yet, the biggest stride known so far belongs to the CIP, whose efforts have produced bread in which 45 to 50 per cent of wheat flour has been substituted with OFSP puree, making it a good vitamin A source and a tested means of pruning costs.
CIP is leading an advocacy that seeks to position the potato itself at the forefront of the battle against hidden hunger in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Kano, northern Nigeria’s most populous state, women are adding colour to the cottage industry by innovating snacks from the puree. Yusuf Dollah, the country manager of HarvestPlus, spoke of how that turn in small-scale processing is helping the women “earn income from the comfort of their homes.”
Delight Bakery, one of Kano State’s top bakeries, introduced OFSP bread to the state after its owner attended a training sponsored by the CIP and facilitated by Esomchi Foundation.
Nigeria’s soaraway energy costs risk killing the golden goose
Since the outset of hostilities in February, the Russia-Ukraine war has kept crude oil prices volatilely high above USD 100 per barrel and in Nigeria which imports nine out of every ten litres of diesel it consumes, energy costs are hitting new highs.
Rotary oven, the oven type many bakeries use, is powered by diesel, whose price has surged at least three-fold since the year started and might rise further. The crisis is dealing a blow to bakery activities, with the bakery unit of SANO Foods now running scheduled operations in order to beat costs.
Abuja-based Farm Organics processes organic, non-genetically modified specialty foods and counts OFSP as the produce around which it is building its core innovative products and services according to the information available on its website. It had started skeletal operations and could not tell when next its bakery would run, citing high diesel cost.
"When I started baking, I started using the firewood oven before I bought my first rotary oven.Cost of firewood at Ibeju Lekki here is something else."On account of irregular electricity in her bakery location, Okoli has been using an industrial oven powered by firewood right from the time she started, implying only her mixer and mixing machine use electricity or diesel. It can bake bread loaves from four bags of flour at a go.
"We have to go as far as Ogun State to get firewood. You know it’s not easy."
"But I’m using rotary oven."
"Because we buy it in the truck, we can buy firewood of like NGN 150,000 (about USD 365.1) and use it for a minimum of three weeks."Now that the bakery is doing light production, her bakery uses fifteen bags (50kg each) of flour daily. She cited transportation as a major constraint as only three vehicles are currently doing distribution and is certain her bakery would be using as many as fifty bags a day considering the huge oven capacity if there are enough vehicles to service it.
"Because of the increase in the price of diesel, we use NGN 2,000 (about USD 4.7) worth of diesel every day."
"Before, we used NGN 2,000 (about USD 4.7) diesel for four, or five days."
"Then we were buying it NGN 200 (about USD 0,47) now it’s NGN 650, NGN 700 (per litre) in Nnewi."
"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."Using firewood to power her oven means she won’t feel the pangs of energy costs much and that also is helping keep the prices of her bread affordable.
Its OFSP bread that is specially designed for kids comes in the size of a doughnut and sells for as low as NGN 50 (about USD 0.12) on the street.
Even though the firewood use raises questions about sustainability and carbon emission, they are not likely to pose a real threat at least for now given Africa’s slow march towards cleaner energy.
The wonder spud and its health benefits
A child holds out OFSP roots (Courtesy: International Potato Center)
The nutrient-dense spud, a miracle of bio-fortification, has a high concentration of beta-carotene, an organic, red-orange pigment that converts to vitamin A in the body after it is consumed.
Its development owes its debt to Howarth Bouis of HarvestPlus and three CIP researchers – Maria Andrade, Robert Mwanga and Jan Low – whose pioneering efforts in developing the breed were rewarded in 2016 with the USD 250,000 World Food Prize sometimes called the "Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture".
The award six years ago to the four scholars was the fruit of a quarter of a century of rigorous and dedicated research labour culminating in what Jan Low calls in Science Direct journal "a disruptive innovation to address a pressing need".
Bouis was nursing the idea of developing staple foods to provide micro-nutrients that could combat the bugbear of malnutrition in Africa and sweet potatoes seemed to him one of the viable candidates.
Because processed foods that are fortified with vitamin A tend to be expensive and unaffordable to rural and poor households, Bouis and his team felt that developing a popular crop like sweet potato by increasing its pro-vitamin A content and micronutrients through selective breeding will make the crop more nutritious as it is growing.
This will help poor households get more than half of their calories from staple foods, and rural households most often consume what they produce.
This way of enriching foods, called bio-fortification in nutrition parlance, differs from the conventional food-to-food fortification procedure in that the latter is often conducted through food processing by companies, who infuse nutrients from other sources as supplements in their food products.
"The challenge of addressing micronutrient deficiencies, or so-called hidden hunger is that it is not obvious to those who suffer from it. Hunger pangs are clearly associated with insufficient energy intake. But no one wakes up saying I crave vitamin A today."Since poor populations especially rural dwellers worry less about vitamin and nutrient intake but are rather concerned with what can fill their stomachs, an effective means of getting vitamin A to them and of making it affordable is bio-fortifying staple and common crops and one beauty here is that rural households most often consume what they produce.
The World Food Prize has called the OFSP the "single most successful example of biofortification". More than one in every three Nigerian children aged 5 years and below suffer stunted growth, a medical condition linked to vitamin A Deficiency (VAD), while 30 percent of preschool-aged children in the country are deficient of vitamin A.
Infograph showing Precentage of children aged 6-59 months that received high-dose vitamin A supplements in 2020
For adults, the potato is seen as a dietary remedy for poor vision, poor productivity, stomach ulcers, and diabetes and is used for easing arthritis pain and helps reduce mortality and anaemia in pregnant and lactating mothers.
Just two slices of OFSP bread provide 10 per cent of an adult’s daily vitamin A requirement. CIP is exploring puree use in humanitarian assistance programs, to extend its nutrition benefits to even more people now.
David Obisesan, programme manager for Nigeria of CIP:
"Every part of the crop could be consumed from the leaf, which is used as vegetable to the root, itself a repository of stupendous nutrients that are one of food science’s biggest blessings to modern life."Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation, one of CIP’s latest brainchilds, is setting sights on ways to develop a robust value chain that will enable participants at each level to gain tremendous exposure to production, processing and utilisation of OFSP.
That will in turn help battle poverty, hunger and malnutrition on the continent.
The players comprise root producers, vine multipliers and other people involved in its value addition particularly in rural Africa. Smallholders, women and youths have been listed as targets.
Sub-Saharan Africa has a bad name for vitamin A deficiency as one of the places with the highest incidence in the world.
A research in 2020 by six food science scholars including Jan Low herself reveals nearly half of under-5 children in sub-Saharan Africa are vitamin A deficient, making them prone to childhood blindness and, in certain cases, premature death.
That West and Central Africa are way behind the rest of the continent, with only 29 per cent of children between ages 6 and 59 months receiving high-dose vitamin A supplements as of 2020, piles on the agony.
But nutrition interventions through OFSP, whose cultivation is increasingly becoming one sustainable means of getting vitamin A to vulnerable populations in rural Africa, could also help tackle chronic childhood health issues like poor cognitive development, morbidity, reduced immunity and diarrhoea head on, experts say.
SANO Foods is nursing a plan to stimulate acceptance of the bread among kids by promoting it among school-owners and authorities of elementary schools from the perspective of how it could better childhood health.
The company aims to leverage the school feeding programme run by most states to introduce the initiative and will emphasise how the Vitamin A component could help tackle childhood malnutrition through the introduction of the bread to children’s meal.
And this seems viable given the affordability of the doughnut-sized bread sold for as low as N50 by Esomchi Foundation, which could even be complemented with the juice made from OFSP for a stronger vitamin A-rich meal.
"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 around my exhibition stand because of the juice."The model which involves the inclusion of OFSP in school children’s meals has seen proven success in the States.
"Most people are telling me that after drinking it, they go back home and sleep very well and we don’t add sugar to it. Now that we are approaching Easter, I’ve got about three big occasions that need it in large quantities. Some people will tell you I want 250 bottles, I need 300."
In the US, some schools have added sweet potato puree to the lunch menu to boost the nutrition quality of those meals. By the same token, FIIRO is setting sights on school-age children as the target consumers of its OFSP shelf-stable cookies, planned as an intervention strategy to promote beta carotene-rich food products for boosting vision, aiding growth and enhancing immune functions.
One of the institute’s innovations called OFSP-based non-instant meals could be prepared as porridge for children and adults alike. In Osun and Kwara states, the CIP teed off a school meal initiative between 2014 and 2017 centring on revolutionising childhood nutrition by embedding OFSP in the menu of public schools.
Bankrolled by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the project trained bakers on the inclusion of 40 per cent OFSP puree in making bread. Fatai Ganiyu, who gained empowerment through the programme, was supplying OFSP bread to as many as 20 schools in one of the local governments in Osun State as of 2017. An arrangement with a local farmer farming close to his bakery enabled him to buy 60kg of OFSP every 2 weeks.
Fatai Ganiyu (left) displaying OFSP bread loaves made BY his bakery (Courtesy: CIP)
"At the moment, I can’t meet the demand for OFSP-wheat bread. I supply the OFSP composite bread to 20 schools; part of the Oriade local government elementary schools. And the children love it."Between the middle of 2015 to 2017, the number of schools enrolled on the state meal plan called O-Meals School Feeding Program had risen from 17 to 186. Every week, 41,216 children were fed with OFSP.
Vitamin A deficiency in children is perennially problematic for nutritionists, food technologists, dieticians and other healthcare officers in Nigeria.
But there are strong possibilities that a countrywide embrace of OFSP bread and replicating the Osun State model of incorporating OFSP-based foods like porridge into pupils’ meal programme in other states could seize the trend.
Nigerian kids are lovers of bread and this could prove one sure way of catching them young.
According to CIP just 125g of fresh sweet potato roots from most orange-fleshed varieties contain enough beta-carotene to provide the daily pro-vitamin A needs of a pre-schooler and that seems to be good for Nigeria, which is home to the world’s second-largest population of malnourished children.
The potato has been developed to have a climate-smart character that will withstand dire growth conditions, making it both drought- and heat-resistant.
The spud is cultivated by its vine, has a production cycle of three to four months and can be planted all year round in Nigeria provided availability of water is guaranteed.
Researchers say it can be grown in all of Nigeria’s thirty six states.
Orange-fleshed Sweet Potato Roots (Courtesy: Premium Times)
"When they plant, farmers “might not even tell you that Cylas has entered and they will supply 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."
Emmanuel Yahaya, agronomist:
"I encountered them (cylas) during my first cultivation back in 2020. The effect on vines are defoliation and make tubers taste unpalatable."I encountered them (cylas) during my first cultivation back in 2020. The effect on vines are defoliation and make tubers taste unpalatable. Demand has obviously outmatched supply…. You have more consumers been aware of the health benefits of OFSP now than before.
Sometimes, Yahaya receives orders from fellow farmers whose production capacity straggles behind demand. In Ajebandele village in Obokun Local Government Area of Osun State, where Ademola Adepoju farms on two-and-a-half acres of land, something else is bringing good fortune aside from the root. He said in 2017 he expected to earn about N1.6 million just from selling OFSP vines to farmers.