The remarkable diversity of food products on American supermarket shelves mirrors the diversity of ethnic groups that have immigrated to this country and introduced their cuisines to American society. Distinctively packaged ingredients for Chinese, Korean, Thai, Hispanic and Middle Eastern dishes have long been available to shoppers in regular grocery stores. Today on New American Voices we’ll focus on attempts to create a broader market in the Washington area for produce used in African cooking.
When Yao Afantchao, an immigrant from Togo, first started farming vegetables like hot scotch bonnet peppers, garden eggs, sorrel, amaranth and callalloo in his in-laws' garden in Maryland, the only customers for this produce were Africans living in the Washington area.
“Initially, my market place was the African embassies. I had a backyard operation where I smoked fish and I grew vegetables, and every Friday – I had a little pick-up truck and I would pull up in front of the African embassies, and they would come out and buy. So primarily it was geared toward the African community. Now the idea is to reach the general population with it.”
The challenge Mr. Afantchao faces is how to mass market produce that many Americans regard as exotic. For advice, he turned to the experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“USDA and myself are talking about a future plan and going into the general community with these foods. Because they told me that now is the time. Everyone from around the world lives in America, especially in Washington, so we will do an education thing about introducing these foods to the general population.”
Mr. Afantchao also hired a marketing specialist, Bukky Babalola, to help him popularize his produce. Ms Babalola came to the United States from Nigeria to study marketing in college, and now specializes in trade between Africa and the United States, and in the marketing of African products here. She also operates a small store that stocks African foodstuffs.
“Originally when I first got into the Washington area there was no market at all that catered to African needs. So we all had to make do with substitutes, something that was close to what we used back home. And sometimes that can be very frustrating, you don’t get that satisfaction of having a good home meal. So that’s how this idea [arose] of having a market where people can come and buy this stuff.”
Bukky Babalola now sells the vegetables Mr. Afantchao grows, as well as his special African smoked fish, in her market in the Washington suburbs. But she says that she is developing a brand name for these products so she can market them more easily to a wider circle of consumers.
“We just decided to do that, to just find a brand name that we’re going to market under that brand name. With time, we’re getting more sophisticated. Because now it’s not only Africans that eat African food. We have friends of Africans, we have people that are married to Africans and want to, you know, cook at home for their husbands or want to impress their wife. We want to be able to serve these people and make it less stressful for them in preparing African meals. So we have labels, we have recipes, we have schools... So because of that we have tailored our product to meet American needs, as well as the African needs.”
The brand name that Bukky Babalola and Yao Afantchao have settled on is “Oyingbo”, which means “large gathering place”, and is the name of a well-known open-air market in Nigeria. The next step is to develop an attractive look for these products, bringing them up to standards required by the large American supermarkets.
“Actually, what we’re concentrating on mostly now is the packaging. We’re trying to enter into big supermarkets like Giant, Safeway, Shopper’s, so you have to be able to meet the packaging requirement, you know. And to be able to make it attractive for consumers. We are trying to break through. Because they also realize, in this area they know there are a lot of foreigners, and they know we eat our food. They know the existence of the African market, so they want to have their share of that market."
Interest in Yao Afantchao’s African produce is growing as quickly as his crops, and has already reached beyond the African immigrant community. Ms Babalola points out that people from the Caribbean and Latin America use many of the same foods, but process them differently. She also sees a big potential market among African-Americans.
“Oh, absolutely. They are very inquisitive, you know. Now we have African restaurants around the Washington area, so if they go to any of these restaurants and they see a particular menu they’re interested in, they want to cook it, so they usually send them to our store and they ask, ‘What do I need to make fufu?’, ‘What do I need to make agusi soup?’ – so they are very receptive, and they always come back, we always have repeat customers. So we’re really serving the American community well, and more and more are joining.”
As the market expands, Yao Afantchao is ready to expand his farming operation and become the premier provider of African vegetables for Washington tables.
English Feature #7-38006 Broadcast November 3, 2003