In Benin, some switch from wheat to banana as prices rise
Josiane Hodonou's small plantain flour business has almost doubled its production since the start of the war in Ukraine. With wheat flour becoming hard to find, some people see the cooking banana as a viable alternative.
Walking through a plantain field just outside of Porto-Novo in Benin, Hodonou is choosing the right fruits for her next batch of flour, each plantain branch costing from US$2.30 to US$11 depending on the number of bananas per branch.
Once she finds everything that she needs, she heads back to her workshop to start the process.
Hodonou began producing plantain flour back in 2018 at a very small scale, but lately her production has nearly doubled.
"Before the war in Ukraine I produced at least 80 kg per month. But now because of the war in Ukraine which caused the price of wheat to increase and made it hard to find in the market, I produce up to 150 kg per month when the market is on," she says.
West Africa is facing its worst food crisis on record, driven by Islamist insurgencies that have forced millions of people off their land in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.
The region has also seen worsening floods and droughts linked to global warming.
The conflict in Ukraine is making a dire situation even worse.
The war has disrupted shipping in the Black Sea, a major artery for grains and other commodities, throttling exports from Russia and Ukraine to markets including Africa.
According to a United Nations report on the impact on trade and development of the war in Ukraine, Benin had been importing all of its wheat supplies from Russia up until March 2022.
Today, Hodonou believes plantain is the way forward.
According to the FAO, Benin produces around 19,000 tons of plantain per year. The fruit plays a important role in the local economy and when processed into flour it can be used to make bread, fritters, cakes and even thicken sauces.
"Generally we use wheat, which is not local, it's not from here. Now that there is the crisis in Ukraine, wheat flour is becoming hard to find in markets and it's also expensive. But we have bananas, plantains at our disposal, we can produce it, so that's why plantain flour has value.
Instead of using wheat to make our cakes, pancakes and everything else, we now use plantain flour. We just mix all the normal ingredients with the plantain flour," she says.
The start was a bit tedious for Hodonou, she was only able to produce 20 kg of flour per month because she had to dry the plantain in the sun. Now using a hydrator, she is able to produce more at a faster pace.
With the price of wheat flour increasing from 60 cents to over US$1 and the produce becoming harder to find in markets, small businesses are starting to use more of Hodonou's flour.
Baker, Agathe Bankole, says she had to switch to plantain flour to continue baking goods. The plantain flour is more expensive, US$3.10 for 500 grams, but it is available and she can bake many things with it.
As an added bonus, Hodonou says plantain flour is gluten free thus better for ones health.