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Exotic Vegetables for D.C. Tables - 2003-10-24


As immigrant populations continue to grow in the United States, demand is growing, too, for produce used in the immigrants’ ethnic cuisines. Following the influx of immigrants from Africa to the Washington area in recent years, a number of local farmers are now cultivating vegetables traditionally used in African dishes. Today on New American Voices, one of these farmers, Yao Afantchao describes the challenges posed by this venture.

Yao Afantchao is a tall, burly, soft-spoken man in his forties who immigrated to the United States from Togo in West Africa some twenty years ago. He says he and his fellow African immigrants had a difficult time getting foodstuffs to cook their traditional dishes here – and he set out to remedy the situation.

“The idea for me is to begin to grow, or begin to get into the effort of feeding ourselves in America, since we live here. Because most of our basic and staple foods are imported from Africa, but I thought that there are maybe some things that we could actually produce locally, here in America.”

Mr. Afantchao says he had always been interested in farming. As a young boy in the early sixties he hung around American Peace Corps volunteers who came to Togo to work on agricultural projects in the villages. One of these Peace Corps volunteers became a mentor and friend, and eventually brought young Yao to a technical school in the United States to study the repair and maintenance of farm machinery. While here, Mr. Afantchao became involved with an African-American organization called Opportunities Industrialization Center, or OIC, and returned to Togo to help establish a self-sufficiency program for local farmers under its auspices. But some years later, frustrated by the political situation in his country, he emigrated to the United States for good, and began to realize his dream of growing African crops in American soil.

“When I had this idea, I really didn’t have anything. The most important part of it is how to bring seeds to the country, because they were tropical plants and very difficult to find. So I went to Togo, and I went to the Department of Agriculture, and of course I went back to OIC, and they helped me to get these plants through, so the plants could come here in a very sanitary and clean condition, so I don’t bring any pests into the country.”

Land was also a problem. Mr. Afantchao didn’t have any.

“I started this whole thing with my wife’s help. Her parents had a house in an almost rural area of Maryland here, so I was gardening in their back yard. Just to see if these plants will grow. And I was pleasantly surprised that they grew. And so I wanted to grow more, and so I talked to people… Resource mobilization has been one of my efforts. You have to go into the community and talk to people about your ideas. They don’t necessarily buy it, but they listen to you, and I was persistent in getting space.”

Mr. Afantchao now farms about two and a half hectares in three different locations on the outskirts of Washington in the state of Maryland. Most of the land he leases from farmers who used to grow tobacco, and needed to discover new crops as tobacco farming was phased out in the state. One of these farmers is Cosby Boswell, an African-American whose family has cultivated land in Maryland for generations. Mr. Boswell, who says his family has traced its origins back to slaves brought to America from Ghana, is gratified to be growing African crops on a portion of his land.

“Oh, I’m enthused about it, myself. I’m glad to have the opportunity to work with Mr. Yao there to do it. I have the land here, and in order to be able to help supply food to different ethnic groups, you know, I’m enthused about it.”

The crops Yao Afantchao grows on his three plots are exotic by American standards, perhaps, but they are staples in Africa.

“The first things that I grew were hot peppers, here they’re called either jabanieros or scotch bonnets. They’re very hot peppers. And I grow garden eggs, they are a miniature variety of egg plants that you find in West Africa. I grow leafy greens, I grow amaranth, I grow callaloo, I grow sorrel, it’s edible hibiscus, a little sour, people eat the leaves as well as the buds. I grow jute leaves, and so on.”

One of Yao Afantchao’s plots of land, about one tenth of a hectare, is part of a larger farm operated by the University of Maryland. Here, Mr. Afantchao has the benefit of the newest agricultural methods and technology that the University’s agricultural scientists are testing out.

“Here we lay plastic, we do drip irrigation, it’s very modern here, it even has an electric fence around it so the deer doesn’t come and eat up the crops. So I am enjoying a true technology, I’m very blessed in that.”

Mr. Afantchao says that at this point his farms are too small for him to hire laborers to pick his produce and still make a profit. So he does most of the harvesting himself. Still, he hopes to expand his operation, working first with a marketing expert to package his farm products attractively and then trying to sell them to supermarkets, which would help them reach many thousands of new American customers.

English Feature #7-37978 Broadcast October 27, 2003

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