Friday, January 28, 2011

What I've been up to #3: BAKING!!!

One of the overarching goals of all Peace Corps Zambia projects is on developing Income Generating Activities - ways for people in our villages to earn extra income over and above their cash crop farming. Obviously fish farming has this potential, as does the organic farming and gardening I've taken up as a side project. But what Peace Corps also want to promote are other small skills like tailoring, bicycle repair, and craftmaking, for example. And in my case, I've been playing enabler to a neighbor (Ba Elias, also my fish farming counterpart), who's starting to craft a successful baking business.

I started experimenting with baking at my site almost as soon as I got posted. Peace Corps Zambia lore is riddled with bread and cake recipes bakeable in the village, so I figured I'd give it a try. I started off baking dutch-oven style: baking in a large pot with hot coals above and below. Using this crude and barely replicable method I managed to make a few good batches of banana and pumpkin bread. Once dry season rolled around and firewood became more available, I decided to upgrade to a wood-fired earthen oven, using actual loaf pans for my bread. Since it's made entirely of mud and thus very cheap for my villagers to replicate, I figured an earthen oven would be a good way to promote baking around my village.

Building the oven by gradually layering mud around a mold made of wet sand

The oven in action

One day Ba Elias walks up to my house and says "Mike, next time you make bread can you tell me so that I can come watch you bake it". Of course I agree, and we make banana bread together soon thereafter. To my delight he brought along a pen and paper so he could write down the recipe, each of the ingredients, and how much each of them cost. He tried the end product, agreed that it was fantastically delicious, and paid it the ultimate Zambian compliment "If you eat this for lunch, I don't even think you'll need to each ubwali!" So I gave him one of the loaves of banana bread to take back to his family.

Much to my surprise, however, he does NOT take the banana bread loaf back to his family. Instead he cuts it up into dozens of tiny pieces and proceeds to run all over the village, handing out the pieces to any adult he sees and asking them how it tastes. Just like the sample stands in grocery stores, I thought! I asked him about it that evening and he says, prophetically, "Once they try it, surely they will want to buy some later." (Fortunately he did also save some for his family)

And a few weeks later, as I'm getting ready to head into town, he comes to my house with fifty thousand kwacha (about 10 dollars) he's saved up, and asks me to bring back the banana bread ingredients that he couldn't get in the village. He tells me, "I was thinking, and I believe I can sell this bread for one thousand kwatcha per slice." I've seen villagers haggling to the death over a fifty kwacha note, so I seriously doubt they'd be willing to pay one thousand for a slice of bread, but I agree to bring back the ingredients anyways. At worst, I figure, I'll just end up buying his banana bread off of him for 1000k a pop, at least until he makes his money back.

I bring the ingredients back in a few days, and Ba Elias comes to my house to collect them. I make a point to offer him free and unrestricted use of my earthen oven, even when I'm not around. "No worries," he says, "I have my own oven." While I was gone he'd managed to find a little charcoal-powered metal box oven, as well a matching baking sheet, that he bartered for completely on his own!

I helped him make the first batch using his oven, and was astonished to find a queue of customers already forming down his driveway, before the bread had even finished baking. People were indeed willing to pay 1000k for a slice; in fact they were scrambling to be first in line! That meant that every loaf he sold netted him about $5 USD. And he was hardly having to try - everywhere he went, he was converting loaves into five-dollar bills in about 30 seconds!
The finished product: delicious banana bread!

That was back in October; unfortunately after a couple of weeks, the imminent rains forced baking to take a backseat to farming. Ba Elias probably won't bake again until May, after the maize harvest is finished. But to this day I still get people telling me "Michael, you must make Ba Elias make more banana bread...we are suffering here!" And we've already got plans for entrenching the business come dry season- taking a trip to the Tanzanian border to source cheaper ingredients; figuring out which ingredients (e.g. eggs, oil) can be substituted out without sacrificing too much quality.

This story never ceases to astound me. With only a seventh-grade education in a failing school system, Ba Elias has shown the brilliance and initiative to recognize a business opportunity, save money to pursue that opportunity, do cost calculations, advertise his product in advance, correctly set a market price, and source his own equipment, all nearly entirely on his own. I've just been there to try and keep the ball rolling. I can only hope he picks up where he left off once the rains go away!


  1. Mike Krautmann, changing lives through food and fishing. :-P

  2. Great to see you post again. Always great to hear your stories and see the pictures. Keep up the great work.
    Much love,

  3. Whoa!! Ba Elias could teach an Economics class in a University here in the states.
    I love the way he handed out free samples......."the FIRST one is free, then they are HOOKED!!!!". Well played, Ba Elias, well played.

    Mark Loehrke