Cissé Ibrahima | July 15, 2013
With no access to land, Mama Kathy Keba could not earn a living as a farmer. She needed to find another way to bring home some money. Around the year 2000, she discovered that selling came naturally to her, and started with watermelons.
Ten years later, a neighbour realized that Mama Kathy was having a hard time transporting the fruit to the market. The neighbour suggested she sell water leaves instead. Mama Kathy soon realized there was more money to be made selling water leaves than selling watermelons.
Water leaf is a vegetable grown in the Southwest Region of Cameroon, and in particular in Manyu Division. It is known in the local language as mpombe. Water leaves are used to prepare eru, another local leafy vegetable. While water leaves contain a lot of water, as their name suggests, eru is dry and fibrous, and takes longer to cook.
Cooking eru changes its flavour from slightly bitter to sweet. Cooking eru with water leaves helps to tenderize the fibrous eru leaves. Eru is often served with fufu − cassava that has been fermented, ground, and boiled − to make a dish known as “water fufu.” Water fufu is a popular dish in local restaurants because of its rich taste. Both water fufu and eru are eaten at celebratory feasts.
Eru in particular has many uses. In the Eastern Region of Cameroon, eru is used to make groundnut soup. In the Littoral Region, it is prepared with fresh maize in a dish known as nkpem. Several tonnes are exported to neighbouring Nigeria to supply restaurants. Pharmaceutical companies use eru to make vitamin tablets. The plant is rich in minerals and vitamins, particularly iron, and the tablets are administered to patients suffering from anemia.
In Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon, women sell water leaves and eru at the Grand Hanger market. The women have been nicknamed “bayam sellam” (buy them, sell them) because they do not grow the vegetables themselves. The farmers who grow the vegetables sell to the highest bidder, and the ladies take the vegetables to market. Mama Kathy, now firmly established as a “bayam sellam” at Grand Hanger, says demand for the vegetables is high.
Water leaves are ready for the market only a month after planting. Mama Kathy sells a bundle of water leaves for 50 Central African francs (10 US cents). During the dry season, this can quadruple to 200 francs (40 US cents). She says, “I make 5,000 francs ($10 US) every day, much more during the dry season.”
Mama Kathy knows how to get the most from the market. She explains, “I cut the leaves into small pieces, ready for cooking. This reduces the buyer’s work. So more customers buy from me.”
She uses the money she earns to pay for household goods, school fees and school books for her children. Mama Kathy has been responsible for her family’s upkeep since the death of her husband. She says: “I like selling at the market because it is my choice. No one forces me to do it. If I worked for someone else, I’d have to go to work even if I was sick.”