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Nigerian bakers turn to potato purée due to high wheat prices 

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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.

Taking the plunge

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.

“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.”

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.

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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,” she said.

“In a bag of flour, when you include 40 per cent of OFSP to a bag of flour, you are making a minimum of N5,000 to N8,000 ($12 to $19) profit in a bag. You make more money by adding potatoes.”

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