Privat Tiburce Massanga | December 15, 2013
(Originally published on March 18th, 2013)
It’s Monday morning and there’s energy in the air in Pointe-Noire, a city on the coast of Congo-Brazzaville. The honking of vehicles and shouting of traders spreads through the market known as “de la Liberté” or “freedom.” Shouts of “mbala, mbala eh!” meaning yams or potatoes, can be heard around the corner of Moscow Avenue, where vehicles pull in. People work quickly to unload agricultural products from the vehicles.
Marie Pouta brought her crops to the market today and knows exactly who will purchase them. She carries three sacks, each filled with 50 kilograms of sweet potatoes. She delivers them to her client, a woman who makes sweet potato crisps. In return, Ms. Pouta pockets 60,000 CFA francs (about 120 US dollars). She is profiting from a surge in the popularity of sweet potatoes, a crop that few farmers in this area grow. She explains: “As people do not produce enough [sweet potatoes] here in Kouilou [region], they are highly sought after by women who make crisps. Sweet potatoes are in style.”
Sweet potatoes used to be one of the most important staple crops in this part of Congo-Brazzaville. But farming families began growing more cassava and rice, and sweet potatoes fell out of favour. However, Ms. Pouta never stopped growing sweet potatoes. She used to grow them only for her family. Until one day she had a chance meeting in the city.
Ms. Pouta was visiting her children in Pointe-Noire and had a small sack of sweet potatoes with her. There, she says, “two young women ‘forced’ me to sell to them, since [sweet potatoes] are the raw material for their business.”
It was then that she realized she could earn good money by growing and selling sweet potatoes. When she returned home to her farm, Ms. Pouta decided to make a change. She grows sweet potatoes for two seasons to meet the strong urban demand. Then she grows cassava in the same field for sale and her own consumption. While all her crops provide her with both food and income, sweet potatoes are the real money-maker. During the main growing season, she typically makes three large sweet potato sales to her regular clients.
Ursula Singou is one of Ms. Pouta’s regular clients. She, too, has benefited from the rising popularity of sweet potatoes. Instead of the traditional method of steaming, she fries them into crisps. Ms. Singou sells the crisps at a stall in her neighbourhood.
She says, “Consumers have become accustomed to our little grilled slices. Our only regret is the seasonal nature of this business.” Ms. Singou is not the only vendor of sweet potato crisps. During the dry season, when sweet potatoes are more readily available, passers-by can purchase crisps in every neighbourhood.