Cameroon: Bakery sees sales growth after switching to sweet potato flour

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 transitioned their small biscuit factory from using wheat flour to locally-sourced sweet potato flour. They haven’t looked back.

It’s a six-storey climb to get to the rooftop that houses the small Biscuiterie Bobo biscuit factory in Douala, Cameroon. Luckily, for those less keen on a cardio workout, there is an elevator.

The mouth-watering smells quickly lead one to a 30m2 workshop with large glazed windows. Sunlight floods the inside of the shop, giving workers and visitors a view over ships loading and unloading their cargo in Douala port. Workers busy themselves stirring dough, cleaning utensils and readying ingredients.

The room next door is the head office. From here, orders are received and deliveries are planned. Cardboard boxes full of biscuits, sablés, madeleines and other tempting goodies are piling up, waiting to be dispatched to some of the hundreds of shops and stores that the brand now has as retail clients.

Following a surge of recommendations on social media, the company, established in 2019, made a pivotal switch from wheat flour to sweet potato flour. This strategic move has been instrumental in driving the company’s growth, says founder Adeline Pelage.

“As our clients were growing in numbers, they expressed the request to have biscuits made from local raw materials,” Pelage explains.

Biscuiterie Bobo recently earned Pelage first prize in the Pierre Castel Award, a competition which recognises innovative and potentially game-changing projects in the field of nutrition and agriculture, across Africa.

Born in Cameroon, Pelage moved to France to attend a business school in Paris. While baking had always been a passion, her financial needs as a student transformed it into more than just a hobby.

“In France, when I was a student, I used to bake and sell my bakeries to afford a living,” she says.

Realising the potential of baking as a business, on achieving her business degree, she went back to school to undergo professional baking training.

When she started her bakery in Cameroon in 2019, wheat flour was easily available but food security issues arose in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as wheat prices soared, disrupting the grain supply and threatening food security, globally.

“The brand’s community on social media loudly voiced their demand for biscuits made essentially from local products. That transformation was incited by client feedback,” Pelage recalls.

While the company decided to listen to its customers, however, the shift to locally available flour was not without its own challenges.

“It took us a year to be able to start producing biscuits with sweet potato flour. Most of the farmers producing the crop are smallholders, based in remote parts of Cameroon. Their output is largely hampered by a lack of resources, lack of funding and poor infrastructure networks,” she says.

It took Pelage a great deal of time to research and reach out to suppliers to be able to set up efficient partnerships for a reliable, regular supply of raw materials. Bobo is now supplied by producers based some 500 km from Douala, in the eastern regions of Cameroon.

“Sweet potatoes isn’t just something you will easily find in every market or every shop shelf in town. One needs to go into rural areas and small towns, meet with producers and dealers,” she notes.

Sweet potatoes are collected from producers by local farming cooperatives and subsequently dried and ground into flour by local processors. The flour is then dispatched to urban centres.

The use of sweet potato flour for baking is not entirely new in Cameroon. One of the most appreciated Cameroonian products is the country’s famous Kumba bread. Made mainly from sweet potato flour, the bread got 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 ministry of commerce – a drag on the nation’s hard currency reserves and a potential problem in the face of supply chain disruptions.

Social media calls for locally-sourced flour stem from both local tastes and a rising nationalism that seeks to reduce dependency on foreign imports. However, to truly substitute imports, Pelage emphasises that more efforts and investments are needed for large-scale production and distribution of tubers and local grains.

For now, the country must rely on individual initiatives, such as the one seen at Biscuiterie Bobo.

/bird story agency