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Opinions of Monday, 29 August 2011

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

My Dilemma for Ghanaian Produce in the Diaspora

..... and the Disappointments. Any Advice?

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK

As a Ghanaian born living in East of England, I am not only excited but also proud to see Ghanaian produce and products in my local market, shops and supermarkets. This might sound strange to those who live in other cities with large West African immigrants (London, Birmingham, Manchester, etc). But for the University, Cambridge city has a relatively small African immigrant population and very few shops that cater for the needs of Africans. My understanding is that, there are only one or two black hairdressing salons in Cambridge. In fact, since I moved to Cambridge in 2004, the few shops that sell African produce are Indian and Chinese owned. Though I have been in Europe for over two decades now, I still enjoy pona yam, plantain, palm oil and other Ghanaian produce and products.

Though my nearest local supermarket is Morrisons as the only products on display with any connection to Ghana are European manufactured chocolate from Ghanaian cocoa, I drive across the city to Tesco where Ghanaian and other African produce are common for my weekly shopping. I am willing to pay a little bit more for fair trade produce and products from developing countries, particularly if they are from Ghana, the country of my birth. Apart from the fact that farmers in Ghana would benefit directly and indirectly assist the Ghanaian economy, it is also nostalgic for me to buy and consume produce from home. So my taste for Ghanaian produce and products has grown over the last years. I now buy fair trade banana, pineapple and other products such as canned tuna Ghana.

Unfortunately, my patriotism or love for Ghanaian produce and products has become a dilemma due my experiences in recent past. Twice or thrice a year, I drive to Spitafield Market (cash and carry wholesale) in London to buy a 50 kilo box of pona yam as yam is very expensive in Cambridge and there is no guarantee that the yam is pona. On one of such trips, more than half of the tubers of yam in the box were not pona but ordinary yam, so I complained to the shop manager on my next trip (an English man). His response was that the yams were packed in Ghana and dispatched to him, so the problem was from Ghana. He also paid for the price of pona yam so there was nothing he could do for me. He suggested that as a Ghanaian I could advice my fellow citizens to be honest with him. I got the impression from this man that he had complained about the cheating but it has not stopped and felt embarrassed by the dishonesty at home. I did shelved my complaint.

When I recounted this experience to a Ghanaian lady friend of mine, she made me look like an idiot. I was confused when she asked me if I did not open the box in the shop to check if the yams were pona before I drove back to Cambridge. I was baffled by her question because I never knew one could identify difference between ordinary yam and pona yam by just looking at them. The only difference I can notice is in the taste. I know pona yam only when I eat it but not by looking at the skin as my lady friend claimed. My daughter who was born in the UK cannot notice any difference between the two even by taste. Since then, any time I go to buy pona yam from Spitafield Market in London, I seek assistance from any Ghanaian woman around to confirm to me that all the tubers of yam in the 50 kilo box are pona, so that I get exactly what I paid for.

On a hot summer week this year and on my usual shopping trips to Tesco, I bought fair trade banana from Ghana. As the weather forecast was a heat wave for the week and I do not like my banana very soft, I bought green bananas to last longer but lo and behold, the bananas turned brown instead of yellowish when ripe, so they ended up in the recycle bin. But, the last straw was just this week. I enjoy pineapple during summer so I decided to get one in Tesco. I was faced with different varieties from different countries but I normally go for the bigger sizes. On this occasion, there were brand produce and non brand but fair trade pineapple from Ghana and Costa Rico. Though the Ghana and Costa Rico pineapples were of similar sizes but the Ghanaian pineapples were more expensive, I opted for a Ghanaian pineapple (£1.70 for a medium size). My teenage daughter who was with me and knows I prefer bigger pineapples queried why I chose a medium size pineapple for that prize when I could have got a bigger one for £2.00. I told her because it was from Ghana and also fair trade. With her obsession with Ghana and anything Ghanaian, she tried to persuade me to buy two without success. She thinks she is more Ghanaian than me.

After dinner, I began to prepare my Ghanaian pineapple for dissert and the rest has left a sour taste in my mouth. I realised there was very little juice in the pineapple but I did not want to believe that it was not good. The appearance both unpeeled and peeled were perfect but when I sliced it open into two halves and tried a bit, it was very dry. The inner part contained whitish spots, which was a manifestation that the pineapple was not matured when it was harvested. As my partner is from Trinidad who has been in England since her teenage years and my daughter was born here, both could not understand why I claimed the perfect pineapple was bad. It also ended up in the recycle bin. I then remember my Ghanaian lady friend’s advice about checking the pona yam prior to taking them home. Should I have checked this pineapple before bringing it home? How could I have noticed if the pineapple had no juice? Could my Ghanaian lady friend or any Ghanaian woman have noticed that?

In my or our disappointment (my daughter was more disappointed than my partner and I), all sorts of questions and ideas came into my mind. Should I drive back to Tesco with the peeled pineapple and ask for a replacement or a refund? No, that would appear mean, though Tesco would gladly have replaced it for me and apologised for the inconvenience but I decided against that for two reasons. Could that damage the Ghanaian pineapple market, the time to travel to and back (at least, 30 minutes each way) and the cost of fuel would not make it cost effective and the whole exercise would not be value for money. Instead, we had vanilla ice cream for dissert. I even left a piece of my pizza in order to make room for the pineapple but as I am writing, I do not only feel empty but peckish and may be tempted to have some fruits before I retire to bed.

Readers, especially Ghanaian exporters, the aim of this piece is not only to share my experience and disappointment but principally, to ask for advice on how to deal with the dilemma I find myself in. I am thorn between patronising Ghanaian produce from Tesco and making a real economic choice by buying cheaper and non Ghanaian to avoid these unforeseeable but disappointing experiences. I paid a higher price for the pona yam from Ghana and got not what I paid for. I believed that was due to greed by some Ghanaian yam exporter who decided to cheat by mixing ordinary yam with pona and package them as pona. The banana episode, I believe was a mere coincidence and that has not stopped me from buying fair trade Ghanaian bananas from Tesco. However, my pineapple experience is such that, I suspect the farmer who harvested the produce must have known that the pineapple was not fully matured, yet s/he did so and spoilt my evening. By his behaviour he did not spoilt my appetite but also contributed to my unhealthy life style (instead of pineapple, I had ice cream).With regret, I have therefore concluded that, henceforth, I will no longer buy fair trade Ghanaian pineapple. I am struggling with my decision and feel guilty within me. Probably, my daughter may make me feel even guiltier if she realises that I have gone back to buying bigger, cheaper and non Ghanaian pineapple.

The fact is, I could have spent just £0.30 extra for a bigger and juicy pineapple which is not from Ghana, enjoyed the full benefits and I would have noticed any difference but chose an expensive produce from Ghana and ended up disappointed. Once bitten, twice shy. I have been cheated not once but twice by exporters in Ghana and so, should I continue to patronise Ghanaian pineapple for the sake of patriotism and with the hope that I am helping Ghanaian farmers, exporters and the economy in general? Please offer me your independent, impartial and candid advice on my dilemma. Before then, I also wish to offer a word of advice to Ghanaian farmers and exporters to be careful with what they harvest for export because such bad practices (packaging ordinary yam as pona and exporting poor quality produce such as immature pineapple) could damage their foreign markets and dent the country’s image abroad. Am I alone? Please those in the Diaspora let me hear your experience on buying Ghanaian produce and products.

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK