YAOUNDE — Cameroonians are returning to traditional methods of transporting and packaging food after the government banned the production, sale and use of non-biodegradable plastic bags. People are now using large plantain leaves to store food - a move that has sparked mixed reactions among consumers and restaurateurs.
It is early morning in Mfou on the outskirts of Cameroon's capital, Yaounde. Nka Pamela, a 26-year-old woman, is visiting a farm to buy plantain leaves.
This has been part of her routine ever since the government banned the importation, possession, sale and use of non-biodegradable plastic bags. People have until April to use up all the bags already in circulation.
Pamela said demand for leaves has skyrocketed and led to scarcity in many Yaounde neighborhoods. “At times the farmers will refuse to sell. There are times that they increase their prices so it makes it difficult for us to bring leaves to Yaounde to sell,” she stated.
At the Mfoundi market in Yaounde, food vendors are now also selling leaves. Restaurant owner Etta Deborah said she uses them to package some African traditional meals like corn fufu, koki, achu and mendumba.
“It is natural and then it is our African culture to use leaves for keeping [conserving] food and I want to protect my customers,” she explained.
But not everyone is happy. Resident Ben Collins said he is concerned about health risks.
“You don’t know the origin of the leaves. You don't know how the leaves were transported. You don't know how they were conserved. You don’t know the chemical reaction between the leaf and the food," he said. "And sometimes leaves are used for medicinal purposes and sometimes people unknowingly package their food with not knowing the effect.”
Dr. Agatha Tanya, nutritionist and lecturer at the University of Yaounde teaching hospital, said there is nothing to be worried about if leaves are used appropriately for packaging.
“We can use leaves, natural leaves which we have in abundance and wrap food in it. And besides, these leaves have a very, very nice flavor,” she said.
Other market vendors say leaves are not practical for packaging many items. Nevielle Ngalim sells bread in Yaounde.
“Where do they want us to put the bread and the cake? To me the banning of the plastic is not normal,” said Ngalim.
Ajongo Jean-Pierre - an official with Cameroon's Ministry of Environment - is an advocate of leaves but says consumers need to understand that the new ban only impacts non-biodegradable plastic bags.
“All plastics are not banned, but we should come back to natural leaves to replace the plastics,” he said.
The Cameroon Association for the Defense of the Rights of Consumers is asking the government to rethink how to roll out the ban so as not to hurt the economy.
“Unfortunately, the socio-economic aspect was not taken into consideration which means that if incentive measures are not put in place, so many people within the sector will be affected," said Yvonne Tarkang, with the association. "So we think that the government should… come up with alternatives because non-biodegradable plastic bags are banned in Cameroon.”
Cameroon decided to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags on the grounds they clog waterways, spoil the landscape, and end up in landfills where take a thousand years to break down and degrade into particles which pollute the soil and water.
The government has announced plans to start producing other types of bio-degradable food packaging materials in partnership with private companies.
Cameroonians have until April to use up all of the plastic bags already in circulation. After that, people using the bags could face heavy fines or even prison time.