Friday, June 21, 2024

Kenyan Sweet Potatoes, Now A Royal Delicacy

Kenyan Sweet Potatoes, Now A Royal Delicacy

Kenyan Sweet Potatoes, Now A Royal Delicacy
Betty Kyallo Poses With The Royal Family In London

Prince Charles’ love for Kenyan-grown sweet potatoes triggers demand for the crop.
An unobtrusive visit by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla Parker Bowles to the Brilliant Restaurant in 2007 would have received little attention until a British paper last month carried a brief story on what they were served.

It emerged that the sweet potatoes they were served had been grown in a village in Kenya. The Indian chef Gulu Anand, who works at the restaurant, became an instant attraction—serving a prince reported to be fussy about what he eats catapulted the profile of the London restaurant, and with it the brand of sweet potatoes that tickled the Royal palate.

Anand later said the Prince enjoyed his meal enormously and the “mysterious” serving turned out to be sweet potatoes from a farming community in Kabondo, near Oyugis town in Homa Bay County.

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The distributors of the sweet potatoes, Sahara Communities Abroad (Sacoma) have been keen to ensure that the product exported to UK from Kenya meets the strict export requirements, and today, demand far outstrips supply.

“Farmers supply us with five to 10 tonnes a week, but this is meagre because ourestimates show that the market can absorb up to 120 tonnes per day,” says Sacoma Managing Director Perez Ochieng.

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“We are working on a programme to develop the farmers’ capacity to supply more of the product,” Ochieng added.

The collaboration has seen fortunes turn bright for small-scale farmers in Kabondo as other restaurants in London and Coventy join the scramble for the popular sweet potatoes.

“It is not common to see a grass-thatched house in Kabondo now because we all have houses roofed with iron sheets, courtesy of the money flowing in from the exports,” says Tobias Muga, the secretary of Kabondo Sweet Potatoes Project Farmers.

“There are widows who used to beg for money at local markets, but when this project picked up, people went back to their farms. Those who don’t have their own farms have been employed as workers in other people’s farms. Life is good,” Muga says.

The initiative began in 2005 but received a major boost two years later when the Anglican Development Services, which is the development arm of the Anglican Church of Kenya, joined hands with small scale farmers and helped them develop networks to  expand  market for their produce.

The Kabondo Sweet Potatoes Project group now collects sweet potatoes from about 1,000 farmers, which they hand over to Sacoma for processing and export.

Currently, the UK-based Sacoma buys a kilo of the product at Sh35, which is a much higher price than the Sh15 previously offered by brokers. It earns the group up to Sh350,000 every week.

“The sweet potato variety is not only a favourite of Kenyans who live in the UK, but is also loved by the British community. The fact that it is on the menu of some of UK’s top restaurants has helped to induce more people to try it, says Sam Ochieng, a Kenyan who lives in London.

Other restaurants in the UK   are now scrambling to make the Kenya-grown sweet potatoes part of their servings. Ochieng says this will boost demand for a product the local community calls rabuon.

Smallholder farmers in Kabondo have been working tirelessly to produce five to 10 tonnes of sweet potatoes that are exported to London weekly, although the recipients, Brilliant Restaurant, would be happier with more supplies.

The restaurant managers know a good thing when they see one.

“We have been operating for more than 40 years and it makes us happy that we are at the forefront of a recipe that has become a favourite for members of the Royal family,” says Anand.

Although Brilliant Restaurant specialises in Punjabi food, many of the dishes have a uniquely Kenyan twist. The restaurant also hit newspaper food review columns a few years ago after turning down a deal to make a million jars of their celebrated mango pickle for Sainsbury’s—the third largest chain of supermarkets in the UK.

The restaurant has a family feel and was the first in the UK to obtain a licence to hold civil marriages.

But this is not why people are falling over themselves to try out their sweet potato servings. The chefs at the eatery have designed specific recipes for the Kabondo sweet potatoes, and are actively promoting their offer at least once every five days in a project similar to the cultural theme nights that have grown popular in Kenya.  Brilliant Restaurant refers to their initiative as sweet potatoes dinner and breakfast.

“Five a Day” is the name of a number of programmes in countries like US, the UK and Germany to encourage the consumption of at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day, following recommendations by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that individuals consume at least 400 grammes of vegetables daily. Therestaurant adapted this format to promote the consumption of the sweet potatoes,” says Perez.

She says her organisation will continue to invest in the project with the injection of further cash to partly finance development projects in Kenya.

“The injection of capital into the Kenyan operation will also increase volume and quality as well as the position of smallholders in Kenya and African imports into the UK,” says Perez.

Prince Charles’ preference for the Kabondo sweet potatoes came as a surprise to the British media that has often accused him of being fussy about his food. Before his visit to the restaurant, it had been documented that he loves scrambled eggs and his staff would prepare up to seven different servings for him every morning in the hope that at least one would be done to perfection.

“But he loved our food instantly,” laughs Anand who became one of UK’s most sought-after food managers when famous people started frequenting his eatery. Other renowned personalities who have visited the restaurant include the late Princess Diana and former UK Prime Ministers Tony Blair, John Major and a multitude of Indian Bollywood stars.

It has won several awards in the UK and hosted Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Princess Margaret and other Royal family members for dinner. The fact that it is also a favourite of UK’s famous chef Gordon Ramsay and the London mayor, Boris Johnson, has raised its profile.

The demand for sweet potatoes in the UK has also excited passions among the people of Kabondo and given them a much-needed lift out of gripping poverty. Now farmers can dream of buying what they never thought they could own.

“I have accumulated enough money to buy a fridge. It is the only thing I’ve always dreamt of owning,” says Leonida Auma, a sweet potato farmer who supplies her produce to the Kabondo Sweet Potatoes Project group.

However, her dream might take longer to come to fruition since there is no electricity in her village.

James Olwal, who dropped out of nearby Agoro Sare Secondary School in Form Two due to lack of fees a few years ago, is also bubbling with hope, but like Leonida, his hopes of owning a huge hi-fi stereo music system depends on the Kenya Power and Lighting.

“I don’t have a farm of my own, but I have saved Sh57,000 by working on other people’s farms. When the power comes, I’ll buy a powerful music system,” he says.

“The opportunities are life-changing. So many lives have changed in our locality since we started to export sweet potatoes to UK because they buy in bulk and offer very competitive prices,” says Tobias.

The farmers earn Sh35 per kilo of the produce, a three-fold improvement over the Sh10 they used to earn per kilo by taking the produce to the roadside market in Oyugis town or the Sh15 per kilo paid by brokers.

Sacoma hopes to increase the farmers’ capacity to supply more sweet potatoes, says Perez.

“We are now generating a lot of interest in the initiative but still want to be able to ensure our commitment to a guaranteed market for small holder farmers is achieved as this is the first of a major initiative.

“As part of our business support and access to market for agri-businesses, we are very much at the forefront of supporting agri-based small and medium-sized enterprises in Africa, creating enterprises, providing skills and creating jobs. Our products are packed in our own pack houses and we have created over 1,000 jobs so far. We are also creating jobs and enterprises in the European Union as part of the supply chain,” says Perez.

Kenyan Sweet Potatoes, Now A Royal Delicacy

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