Bakery sees sales increase after switching to sweet potato flour

by MMC
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Adeline Pelage holding a crate of biscuits in the Biscuiterie Bobo factory in Douala, Cameroon.

Adeline Pelage holding a crate of biscuits at the Biscuiterie Bobo factory in Douala, Cameroon.

By Patrick Nelle, bird story agency

In 2022, Adeline Pelage and her husband switched their small biscuit factory from wheat flour to locally sourced sweet potato flour. They haven’t looked back.

You have to climb six floors to access the roof which houses the small Bobo biscuit factory in Douala, Cameroon. Fortunately, for those who don’t want to do cardio training, there is an elevator.

Tantalizing smells lead quickly 30m2 workshop with large bay windows. Sunlight floods the interior of the store, giving workers and visitors a view of ships loading and unloading their goods in the port of Douala. Workers are busy stirring the dough, cleaning the utensils and preparing the ingredients.

The next room is the head office. From there, orders are received and deliveries are scheduled. Boxes filled with biscuits, shortbread, madeleines and other tempting treats are piling up, waiting to be shipped to some of the hundreds of boutiques and stores that the brand now counts among its retail clients.

Following a wave of recommendations on social networks, the company, created in 2019, made a radical change from wheat flour to sweet potato flour. This strategic approach has played a key role in the company’s growth, says founder Adeline Pelage.

“As our customers were more and more numerous, they expressed the request to have biscuits made from local raw materials,” explains Pelage.

La Biscuiterie Bobo recently won the first Pelage prize of the Prix Pierre Castel, a competition which rewards innovative and potentially revolutionary projects in the field of nutrition and agriculture, across Africa.

Born in Cameroon, Pelage moved to France to attend business school in Paris. Although baking has always been a passion, her financial needs as a student made it much more than just a hobby.

“In France, when I was a student, I baked and sold my bakeries to earn a living,” she says.

Realizing the potential of baking as a business, after completing her business degree, she returned to school to pursue professional baking training.

When she started her bakery in Cameroon in 2019, wheat flour was easily available but food Security concerns emerged following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when wheat prices soared, disrupting grain supplies and threatening global food security.

“The brand’s community on social media has loudly expressed its demand for biscuits made primarily from local products. This transformation was driven by customer feedback,” Pelage recalls.

Although the company decided to listen to its customers, the switch to locally available flour was not without its challenges.

“It took us a year to be able to start producing biscuits made from sweet potato flour. Most farmers who produce this crop are smallholders based in remote areas of Cameroon. Their production is largely hampered by lack of resources, lack of financing and poor infrastructure networks,” she says.

It took Pelage a lot of time to research and contact suppliers so that they could establish effective partnerships for a reliable and regular supply of raw materials. Bobo is now supplied by producers based around 500 km from Douala, in the eastern regions of Cameroon.

“Sweet potatoes are not just something you will easily find in every market or on every store shelf in town. You have to go to rural areas and small towns, meet producers and resellers,” she notes.

Sweet potatoes are collected from growers by local agricultural cooperatives, then dried and ground into flour by local processors. The flour is then transported to urban centers.

The use of sweet potato flour for baking is not entirely new in Cameroon. One of the most popular Cameroonian products is the country’s famous Kumba bread. Made primarily from sweet potato flour, the bread takes its name from the town of Kumba in southwest Cameroon where it originated.

In 2022, Cameroon imported 922,000 tonnes of wheat, according to the country’s commerce ministry – a drag on the country’s hard currency reserves and a potential problem in the face of supply chain disruptions.

Calls on social media for locally sourced flour stem both from local tastes and a growing nationalism that seeks to reduce dependence on foreign imports. However, to truly replace imports, Pelage emphasizes that more effort and investment is needed for the large-scale production and distribution of local tubers and grains.

For now, the country must rely on individual initiatives, like that observed at Biscuiterie Bobo.

/bird stories agency

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