Portsmouth and Plantain Chips: How the pandemic affected the ‘African Food Store’

Words by Emmanuella Ngimbi; Illustration by Onyinye Iwu

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Seasons only happen to European vegetables and fruits ─ everything outside of that is abundant and homogeneous all year round. At least that’s the impression I get from perusing the websites of some of our restaurant suppliers. Seasonality and tradition is for British produce (which is great), and for French and Italian produce too (even better), heritage tomatoes priced like jewels and multicoloured citrus reverently picked and handled to reveal their most potent expression. Some of us shop at these places and rue the effect on our wallets, but we go back because we understand why we pay the price. Outside of this, we expect our local supermarkets to be full of the same cheap, aseasonal produce from outside Europe ─ a clear demarcation in what we value.

The major exception to this rule is the mango, whose seasons in the UK closely follow India and Pakistan with a one week delay. Even Natoora has Alphonsos. But what if our idea of seasonality could expand further? Remember, the big advantage of seasonality is not for our palates but that it confers value for the farmer: I spent all of yesterday tasting and pricing some Chinese teas made from single trees, usually released about now, and they will go on the market at over £1 per gram. Meanwhile tea priced at £1 per kilo is made all year round in East Africa by farmers who will never be able to generate the value needed to ensure they are paid fairly, trapped in a colonial system of exploitation.

We very rarely hear about the traditional and seasonal agriculture of places outside Europe ─ particularly Africa. Yet they exist, and face additional challenges given that the food system is often imposed from outside. Today’s article by Emmanuella Ngimbi on how COVID-19 has negatively affected the African food stores in her city of Portsmouth, is perhaps a direct effect of this ─ these food chains are barely valued except by those for whom they are vital or for whom it is simply a commodity market, the produce is not yet the highest quality because the systems are not in place to connect the best producers. I think of Yemisi Aribisala who has written about how difficult it is to get great iru in London, and of Tunde Wey who helped source equitably traded iru for the US market, introducing it to a new audience as something of value. I wonder what our larders and our food would look like if iru could be traded as easily and equitably as Miyagawa satsumas?

I’m not saying the solution is for Natoora to stock £3 plantains. The African food store already exists and serves populations both concentrated and fragmented (as Emmanuella points out, the more fragmented the more importance they take on). There are also huge issues regarding supply chains and food resilience which must be solved internally. A tiny but not insignificant thing we could do is be more mindful of the things we value and the things we don’t. As minor as it seems, the rise of West African food in London restaurants and the introduction of West African recipes into the British mainstream, will eventually have implications, both foreseen and unforeseen, on producers thousands of miles away. And with them, the African food store will change too ─ from a commodity market to perhaps something more small scale, both local and localised, that can benefit farmers and consumers alike.

Portsmouth and Plantains: How the pandemic affected the ‘African Food Store’

For decades, African food stores have quietly been serving UK communities often neglected by the major supermarket chains. Although some supermarkets have tentatively started stocking basic ingredients, like plantain or fufu, these tiny, often ad-hoc stores are still a staple stop on any Black shopping trip ─ especially for items that deteriorate faster and represent more risk for supermarkets, like lesser-seen African greens such as potato leaves, cassava leaves and callaloo. These stores serve as a vital connection for both African and Caribbean expats, food and ingredients being a key – and inexpensive – way they can keep a connection to heritage while away from home.

The ‘African’ food store is not one definable thing, and often changes depending on who you ask and which parts of the African diaspora live in a certain area. People from West Africa, the Horn of Africa, East Africa and Central Africa may enjoy similar keystone ingredients which can be found at your local African food store, but there are also many important differences.

It is the West and Central African food store that is perhaps the most visible. The people of West Africa eat starchy and spicy meals such as kenkey, fufu and garri, and most of the ingredients needed to make these dishes are found in specifically West African food stores. These usually cater to Nigerians, Ghanaians and Sierra Leoneans, as well as the more fragmented parts of the West African diaspora, from Senegal and Gambia in the west, and as far east as the Congo, where I am from. 

London is home to hundreds of these shops, and they can be found in areas where diasporas have settled: Dalston, Barking and Upton Park in the east; Peckham, Brixton and Lewisham in the south; Harlesden in the west and Tottenham in the north. But outside of London, the paucity of these shops means they take on an even greater significance to those who rely on them.

Moving to the seafront after living in London my entire life was a major culture shock. Ten years ago Portsmouth was a lot less diverse, which also meant less establishments catered to Black people. It was hard to find basic amenities like Afro-Caribbean hair shops, food stores, hairdressers and barbers that work with Black hair textures, let alone restaurants. Eventually, after getting to know other Black people in the area, familiarity became community. 

This is the case for my local African food store. Ever since I discovered it two years ago it has been a salvation for me and my mum – before we used to make the 150-mile round trip to London four times a year to stock up. Brigitte, the owner, is from Cameroon and mainly sells food and ingredients to make home-style Cameroonian dishes such as eru, ekwang and sangah, but this is not enough to survive. As Portsmouth has a low population of African people she also sells common stock that will cater to the diversity of the African diaspora: produce such as maize, plantain and cassava. Every African person knows these ingredients intimately and will use them to prepare different dishes, all of which bring familiarity and a sense of comfort.

While the temporary negative impacts of COVID-19 on the supply chains of UK supermarkets were widely reported, the effect on smaller stores, particularly diasporic supermarkets, has been less so. The pandemic has heavily impacted African food shops as they usually rely heavily on stock imported from Cameroon ─ which has had an economic trade partnership with the EU since 2014 ─ as well as Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana. With these countries closing their borders as early as April and without the possibility of native grown British produce, African food stores in the UK have struggled to stock the shelves that our own panic buyers left bare. In order to keep her business manageable with the low intake of stock and the unpredictability of panic buyers, Brigitte was forced to limit customers to four items per person, asking them to think about others. Even with this condition, she says that on a typical week she would “sell 90% of the shop”. 

Unfortunately for Brigitte, the easing of lockdown hasn’t helped her business return to a state of normality. While supermarkets have multiple solutions to shore up against the problem of disrupted supply chains, there continues to be trouble shipping food and ingredients from Africa, most of which can’t be replaced through any other means. Brigitte mentions the difficulty in connecting flights – her stock may get out of Cameroon but one cancellation and vital produce is suddenly stranded. 

To tackle this, Brigitte now visits six different warehouses in London to find stock for her store, a striking difference from before lockdown when she would only visit one. African food stores based in areas with a low populations of Black people, such as Portsmouth, would normally spend at least £250 a week hiring vans to travel to warehouses in London to restock their stores, but over the last few months Brigitte has often been left disappointed when the van returns with less than half of the products required. The customers that were once patient have become disappointed at the lack of action from the government – who they blame for the delay in response back in March for many of Brigitte’s issues – but nevertheless they have remained supportive.

As one of only three African food shops across Portsmouth, stores like Brigitte’s have even more of an imperative task to serve and provide, given that Black people in these areas do not have the luxury of finding many alternative shops for ingredients. Grace, a Congolese customer based in Portsmouth, highlights the importance of these shops: “It’s so important for my family to eat African food as well as British food; it reminds me of home, my children enjoy it and love learning about the different dishes from Congo”. Grace and Brigitte both speak French, which helps to identify the Congolese names for food that she’d otherwise struggle to translate such as chikwanga (steamed cassava bread), fumbwa (wild spinach stew) and pondu (cassava leaf stew). “If these shops in Portsmouth don’t have the ingredients I need I can’t just go to Tesco or Asda. Yes they have a ‘world food’ section but less 5% of it is African. I would be forced to go to London to buy African food for my family, which can be tiring.” Grace explains. “That’s why I’m so happy Brigitte is here.”

Despite some financial support from the government, Brigitte has refused to rest on her laurels, and says that this pandemic has forced her to be prepared for the worst. “As a businesswoman you should be prepared at all times,” she tells me. “This is a pandemic; next time it could be a war, a fire or flood, so we have to be prepared mentally and physically.” One of the key ways Brigitte is preparing her business for the worst is by storing food such as Indomie packet noodles, garri and palm oil out back, ensuring she will have more than enough stock for her shop. By bulk buying multiple items of rice, powdered milk, beans and African sardines she has started her own warehouse, almost guaranteeing that her African food store will not face drought in the event of further Covid-19 waves. 

“The warehouse is becoming full. Every time we buy stock for my shop I always get extra for the warehouse, as I want to be prepared in case of a second lockdown.” Brigitte tells me. “Last time was very shocking and scary for my business – this time I will be ready.”

As a second-generation African, born and raised in the UK, I have come to appreciate the food stores that keep me tied to my heritage. While I was at university in Southampton, I learnt that the foods like fufu and pondu, which I used to hate growing up, are not just a staple part of a diet, but of my identity and culture. With no African food store in close proximity I would have to visit Asian food stores and supermarkets to find alternative ingredients, swapping fresh pinto beans for the canned version to make madesu, a traditional Congolese dish using beans, onions and tomatoes. Other times I would visit home and return with plenty of containers of homemade pondu because I needed a taste of home when university became draining. Without African food stores on my high street I was unable to make these cultural dishes and had to go to great lengths whenever I wanted to switch it up.  

Whether they’re in a big city like London, or a smaller city like Portsmouth, these shops are important features of the high street, not just for the African community but also for anyone that seeks to use them. At the height of lockdown, when supermarket shelves were empty of staples, many African food stores even had items such as flour and pasta in stock. While many hope that major supermarkets will stock more African ingredients frequently in the name of diversity, my wish is that people continue to support independent African food store owners, who work tirelessly to provide for their communities. I have been stocking up at Brigitte’s store: my freezer is full of pondu and chikwanga, and cupboards are packed with packs of fresh pinto beans, coarse semolina and three 10kg bags of Laila basmati rice. So, next time you see an African food store I recommend you be curious, go in and explore. You don’t even need to know how to cook. Just get Indomie instant noodles, some spices and grab a bag of the plantain chips – if you’re going to stock up on anything, it may as well be the greatest snack known to mankind. 

NB: Brigitte preferred to contribute to this article anonymously, therefore her name has been changed the name of her store has not been given.

Emmanuella Ngimbi (@emmanuella_N) is a features writer. With a love of all things Beyonce, food and rum in that order, she is often found under a blanket with a snack.

The illustration is by Onyinye Iwu, an illustrator, designer and teacher based in London. Her work can be found on her website https://www.onyinyeiwu.com/. Her work is inspired by the African continent and specifically her Igbo heritage.