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In Togo’s capital, Lomé, home-grown rice costs almost twice as much as the imported product from Thailand. Yet there are good reasons for preferring the local product
The aroma of rice wafts through the terraces at night in Bekpota Atchantime, a residential district in the Togolese capital, Lomé. In the light of an energy-saving lamp, 34-year-old Patricia Adragni stands at the stove with her sister, Ornella, both of them cooking dinner for their mother and themselves. Because it’s still too warm in the rooms of their small house in the evenings, the kitchen is in a corner of the verandah. In the opposite corner, their mother, Vicentia Pauline Sokpoli, sits on the sofa chatting to a neighbour. Meanwhile Patricia cuts up a chicken for dinner.
They’ll be having ‘poulet bicyclette’, as it’s known here – ‘bicycle chicken’. It’s not entirely clear why it’s called that, but anyway, it’s a bird that, until a short time ago, was running around the neighbourhood. ‘I never buy imported chicken pieces,’ says the young woman, ‘although they’re cheaper.’ She prefers to give her money to one of her neighbours or a local farmer. She’s cooking rice and tomato sauce to go with the chicken. All of the ingredients were produced in Togo. ‘I only buy Togolese products,’ says the 34-year-old administration employee.
Patricia and her family are a part of the small but growing Togolese middle class. When shopping, not only do they look out for the price, but also the quality. ‘Well, you hear so much about the harmful effects of all kinds of additives,’ Patricia’s mother chips in from the sofa. ‘In tinned foods, for example. Or all the salt in stock cubes and other ready-made products. It’s just not healthy.’ For Patricia, buying local products is not just about her health – more than anything, she’s thinking in political terms. ‘As a nation, we can only make progress if we help ourselves,’ she says, summing up her convictions. ‘That starts with us buying our own products.’ And in the process increasing the buying power of the producers, who mostly live in rural areas. In this way everyone can help to reduce the rate of poverty in Togo.
Essi Essenam Ameganvi is one of the producers that Patricia has in mind when shopping. In the mornings the small farmer runs her fingers through the dry soil of a rice paddy on the outskirts of Notsé, a village about 100 kilometres north of Lomé. Without even looking, she feels a weed among the rice plants and pulls it out with a tug. Meanwhile, she continually scans the banana plants, mango trees and coconut palms as far as the eye can see. Now and then she glances briefly at her colleague, Mensah Adrekpe, who is also a member of the rice-growers’ cooperative in the village of Notsé.
When I see how my plants are thriving, it gives me renewed energy
Adrekpe is standing barefoot in the field, his feet chapped. Using his machete he slashes right into a shrub that has put down roots amid the rice. It’s plain to see how difficult the 56-year-old finds crouching for hours at a time and working bent over. Ameganvi, too, has a few beads of sweat on her face. ‘But I love the plants and working in the fields,’ says the rice grower. ‘When I see how my plants are thriving, it gives me renewed energy.’
She and her husband have raised four children. All of them were able to attend the higher school, and their two eldest daughters are already students. ‘We owe our children’s education to rice,’ says Ameganvi. The pay that her husband earned as a trainer for a government department was just extra income for the family. The same goes for pension that he gets now – just 20,000 West African francs a month, or around 30 euros. ‘The rice accounts for a good 70 per cent of our income now,’ estimates Ameganvi.
Five years ago the rice grower joined the cooperative, ‘Friends of the Earth’, which her colleague, Adrekpe, is also a member of. ‘Together we get credit more easily for seeds or fertilisers and can share our experiences,’ explains Ameganvi. The twelve members grow rice together on five hectares. Some, like Ameganvi and her husband, have private fields as well. They sell what they harvest to ESOP, a service provider for farming cooperatives. There they get 150 West African francs for a kilo. On the open market they’d get no more than 100.
‘We can pay more than others because we don’t follow the laws of the market,’ explains Carole Ahoulimi, manager of the ESOP branch in Notsé, afterwards. ‘It’s only possible because we refine the rice.’ Since December 2013 the rice has been husked, sorted and packaged in Notsé. Almost 800 growers benefit from this, as ESOP buys their goods from them at a higher price than the normal market rate. In addition, six regular employees and around twenty casual day workers earn a living at ESOP.
The women turn up each day to sort the rice. In one corner of the yard they pour the grains with their husks on from aluminium bowls into a mill. This removes the bran layer and the germ, and then polishes the kernel. Bare white rice falls out of the bottom into awaiting bowls. Abla Yovo takes one of these to a covered area in the middle of the yard. The 25-year-old sits there with the other 20 women who spend hours sorting the husked rice by hand.
We owe our children’s education to rice
Most of them wear green overalls and, for reasons of hygiene, headscarves. Yovo separates the kernels with her right hand on a plastic turquoise plate. This exposes the brown and black parts, which she picks out carefully with her fingers. She produces 25 to 50 kilos of rice a day, depending on the quality. Laborious work, but Yovo is glad of the job. ‘I’d have no income at all otherwise.’
The rice from ESOP, which is almost twice as expensive as the rice imported from Thailand, can be bought at the OADEL shop in Lomé, among other places. Patricia Adragni often browses through the rows of wooden shelving during her lunch breaks, as the shop named BoBaR – short for boutique-bar-restaurant – is not very far from her office. Then she wanders past biscuits made of plantain, peanut butter and soya flour, couscous made of soya, spaghetti made of maize, then past honey, and jams made of passionfruit, papaya and watermelon. Today she wants to buy avocado wine and rice for the weekend ahead. Her family is expecting visitors.
The following evening, while Patricia and her sister, Ornella, are cooking, people keep knocking on the metal yard gate. Neighbours drop by for an evening chat, and then move on. Finally, the expected guest turns up. Just in case anyone else turns up to eat unannounced, the sisters have cooked plenty of rice. Hospitality is just as much a part of Togolese culture as maize porridge, rice and ‘poulet bicyclette’.