Baking a Living

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the number of people wanting to order traditional Ethiopian Defo Dabo bread. This has resulted in an increase in homebased baking businesses across Addis Abeba. With no authorising body to assess standards, trust and word of mouth are key marketing tools, while official bakeries have also begun adopting the traditional cooking methods in line with demand. The holiday season sees a massive spike in demand for the bread, with many small-scale business struggling to cope with the added pressure on their intermittent power supplies, reports Nardos Yoseph, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER

Two years ago, Sofia Benger was a stay-at-home mum, taking care of her four children and socialising with friends at an array of ceremonies. When her neighbours planned to go visit a mother who had just given birth, attend a funeral or visit new condominium owner friends, it was she who would bake the homemade local breads.

“I was ashamed when my neighbours asked me to do it for money,” she said. “I didn’t know it had become a business.”

Sofia decided to formally set up her home bakery business after her eldest daughter told her that she had seen many adverts for such a service on the gates of people’s homes.

The business began in her small kitchen, which cannot even comfortably hold four people, and is made with corrugated iron sheets, pitched up against her clay kebele house. When the door is opened, the delicate smell of Defo comes out – luckily the public toilet is three houses away.

At the right side of the kitchen, right beside the door, seated on three relatively equal medium-sized stones, there is the traditional clay made material, called mitad, which is used to make injera.

The dust of the firewood that had been used to bake the injera has darkened the walls and uncovered roof. On the other side, there is the electric bread pan.

Sofia bakes wearing her casual long dress, which is splattered with dough, as well as a scarf covering her head.

Her ‘business’ has slowly but surely evolved, with her reinvesting whatever meagre income she makes back in to the business.

She only got the electric pan she now uses after a year of operating her business, investing 1,500 Br. Prior to that, she used to use geber mitad – a traditional pan made of clay –along with firewood and kobba. These were her only expenses, limited to 50 Br of firewood and 40 Br of Kobba, for 12-16 monthly orders.

Her returns then ranged from 90 Br up 310 Br, as she used to charge 15 Br – 25 Br for each piece, depending on the season and the volume required, baking 12-16 pieces of bread.

She never counted the health and related costs she used to bear due to exposure to carbon smoke.

A study carried out in 2014, Sophia started her small business showed that in Africa, urbanisation and better livelihoods have not improved the situation of women in terms of using modern electricity. Data in the same report indicated that only eight per cent of the total energy consumption in Ethiopia comes from modern fuels.

For related issues of exposure to indoor air pollution from traditional fuels, close to 1.5 million people lose their lives prematurely, according to estimates of the World Health Organisation.

At the beginning of her business, the highest number of orders she would take a week was four or five. Now, this figure has become at least three per day in the holiday season. The monthly Orthodox Christian celebrations in the names of their saints within their Christian Associations, are also the busiest times for her. On top of this, some want bread for birthday celebrations.

Around this time, her three children also chip in to help their mother. The 16-year-old is the biggest help, cleaning the tools and kitchen, and mixing the dough.

The electric metre system she uses works by card, which is charged with at least 200 Br monthly.

The early days, when customers got their bread for 15 Br or 25 Br are gone. Prices have now jumped up to 65 Br to 165 Br all inclusive. The size starts at 2kg and can rise up to 6kg, depending on the demands of the customer.

The only advertisements Sofia ever did was writing on a piece of paper, stating that ‘we bake defo dabo’. The little paper was taken by the wind long ago, but still people in her district flock to her home to order.

Defo dabo is Ethiopian bread, usually baked with wheat flour dough on a traditional pan made of clay. The process involves putting leaves called kobba under and on the dough. The big round bread that the formal bakeries bake is the modern version of defo dabo.

Ever since the beginning of her business, word of mouth has helped to advertise her service, with those who she baked for first informing their friends and relatives.

“As it gives them the traditional sense, people like that little sour taste in the mixture of my defo dabo,” explains Sofia.

Seble Asfera, 40, a widowed working mother who lives near to Sofia’s place with her three children – one in college, and a boy and a girl in primary school – used to find the holiday season tough. She had to go to the market to buy all the goods and come back home for more work.

Now, Seble orders the 65 Br 2kg defo from her trusted seller, Sofia.

“Since I do not have to worry about finding the time to bake anymore, Sofia’s service makes my life easier around the holiday,” she says.

Holidays are a war zone for those who in the business, like Sofia. Even those who bake defo in their own homes visit the home bakeries to purchase an extra one to take to their family.

Regular customers are mainly those purchasing the bread for commercial purposes, with daily demand coming from food kiosks.

They serve tea in the shade of blue plastic tarpaulins, erected on the fence of Kirkos District, wereda 7. They buy the bread for 65 Br a defo, then cut it into 25 pieces and sell that for five birr each, making a 60 Br profit.

“I am happy defo is back on a regular basis,” a daily labourer, who frequents the blue shaded kiosks for breakfast, told Fortune. “The loaves from bakeries are so light that you can finish it with one mouthful and feel like you have eaten nothing.”

With this defo, he can wait until lunch without any pinch of hunger, he explained.

Some ‘modern’ licensed bakeries seem to be aware of people’s taste preferences. A small licensed food service provider in wereda 15 of Kirkos District offers to bake defo for 80 Br to 100 Br, for three and four kilograms, respectively. The cashier says selling one or two of them in a week is very good considering the customers are often interested in the traditional way of baking.

One of the customers of the homemade bakeries states that she pays to get both the defo and the feeling that she did not miss out on anything by not baking it herself.

As these home based bakeries are not registered, there is no way of knowing how common they actually are. Their small pieces of papers on poles on the streets and small hand written cards are sine everywhere. Due to the common problem of power supply during this peak season, when household consumption escalates, the small businesses face challenges. Though the supply of energy on which they depend has improved, it it still inconsistent.

“Holidays come with both blessings and a curse,” says Sauda Heyru, 27, Muslim lady home baker, who lives near Artist Tilahun Gessese square. She points to the light above her head. “Imagine the amount of dough wasted due to the modern method.”

People often start to order four days before the holiday, as the home bakeries gets so busy they can only serve first comers.

Despite the seemingly expanding small-scale business opportunities, which focus on a ‘back to roots’ type approach, the City’s Food, Medicine and Healthcare administration has no category in which to place them.

“If there are such endeavours on a small scale, it is out or our mandate,” says Tadele Werdofa, health and health related industries standard authorisation department officer at the Addis Abeba City Administration Food, Medicine and Health Care Administration and Control Authority. ”Our focus is on those bakeries that have more than one branch in two districts.”

In this category are close to 400 bakeries registered and regulated by the City authority.

Evaluation requires pre-licensing, where investors must have at least nine square metres of space in which to work. They also must have ventilated rooms, high sanitary standards, a first aid kit and pest controlling mechanisms, to name a few.

Surprise checks are, however, very rare. The maximum number of inspection days for bakeries is four per a year. The Bureau is facing difficulties in even controlling the licensed ones let alone chasing the home bakeries.

“We didn’t finish organising the Bureau,” Tadele informs Fortune. “We do not have a list of bakeries authorised by each district in the city.”

The Bureau has pending court cases on the bakeries that are not working as the directive orders them to.

One bakery in the city, over a half a century old, is the Shoa Bakery, with over 20 branches. The recent phenomenon of home bakeries is much less of a concern in terms of competition.

But the home bakers are aware of the standards.

“No customer has ever checked the weight, hygiene or other factors,” said Sauda. “There is no difference in the way we bake for our customers and for our family.”

And they have the trust of their customers who are also neighbours.

“We know the bakers, they live among us, with us, so then we never hesitate to order from them,” said Wubitu Mogges, 49, one of Sauda’s customers.

There is something about homemade bread that simply cannot be replicated commercially.

“We have tried baking the bread in the traditional form, shape and size,” Sirak Abate, the administrative manager at the Meshualekia branch of Shoa bakery, told Fortune. “It is very different and did not win many hearts”

In rare instances, upon order only, Shoa prepares and sells circular bread made in the form of defo. The cost is 21 Br and 28 Br for 1.5kg and 2kg bread, respectively.

Other small businesses are also getting in on the act.

Besrat mart, a mini market found around the Debrezeyt road, states that they sell defo, with two pieces folded in plastic for 10 Br. The mart brings the bread from a baker they know in advance.

Among the highest sold items at Shoa supermarket, located on the Bole road in Wello Sefer, during the holiday season, is the 60 or so rounded defo breads ordered from MulMul Bakeries. Quality and sanitation assurances are the reason for choosing the bakery.

For the homebased small bakers such a question was alien to both the service givers and the clients – it is all about trust.

“We would like to make a living in this trade, so we will try to make sure that high standards are kept,” said Sofia.

By Nardos Yoseph

Published on May 03,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 835]



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