LOME (AFP) – Clad in the apron of his trade, Bonaventure Boma chides employees while they take steaming baguettes out of the hot ovens that have helped make him “the king of bread” in Togo.
From a modest background, Boma has spent 30 years kneading dough and now has two large modern bakeries in Lome, capital of the west African country.
“I’m curious, I travel a lot,” Boma, 57, said reflecting on his success. “When I stayed in Senegal 30 years ago, I saw that people already ate a lot of bread and thought, ‘Why not in Togo?’.”
French bread used to be a rare commodity in Togo, not surprising as wheat is not grown in the country and must be imported.
But Boma has led the push to widen its appeal, making his flour from sorghum, cassava and yams, all cultivated in northern Togo, where he introduced his baguettes last month.
“Today, bread has become a breakfast habit, and they are even eaten at tea-time,” Boma said.
Fifty bakeries in Lome now compete in an increasingly competitive market place, with vendors on three-wheeled auto-rickshaws also selling fresh loaves to office staff in the city.
A further 100 bakeries are estimated to have opened across the country.
It reflects the rising popularity of bread among the urban middle classes in west Africa, with even big French retailers such as La Brioche Doree and Paul opening shops in Dakar and Abidjan.
Boma knows all about hard work. As a 13-year-old, he worked in groundnut and millet fields for the equivalent of 0.38 euro cents a day ($0.42), roughly the price of one of his baguettes today.
After opening a small grocery store, he founded his first bakery in 1992 with a 45,000 euro bank loan ($51,100).
He said he “learned on the job with a very experienced, elderly baker.”
In the 1990s, he sought to improve his baking methods by travelling to Switzerland to take a training course.
“Every baker has his secret for kneading the bread. I learned several techniques. I quickly introduced different methods once I came back to Lome,” he said.
The business expanded to two bakeries and his company, Bomaco, is now a household name, employing about 80 people.
He has also invested in a small hotel, two restaurants and a nightclub, which he runs with his daughter, although he says “above all, I stick to my bread.”
“The early days were very difficult because it was a real adventure. But business progressively picked up because of the quality of my loaves,” Boma said.
Boma’s bakeries now sell about 5,000 baguettes a day, including to supermarkets, military barracks and the international airport.
Despite the colonial legacy of the product, bread sales have risen and Boma has more plans for expanding his business.
“The loaves from the Bomaco company have an exceptional flavour,” said Albert Djinou, owner of a supermarket in the capital that buys Boma’s bread.
“It’s the bread most in demand among my clients. Mr Boma is the king of bread.”
The success of Boma’s bread even earned him an invitation to represent Togo at a bread fair in Milan two years ago, where a key theme was “feeding the planet”.
Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole imported more than 23 million tonnes of wheat in 2015, according to the US Department of Agriculture, and Boma believes the demand for wheat will continue to grow.
An optimist, Boma is now thinking and talking big, with plans to open his own national bakery chain and even a large seafront hotel.
“In the hotel business, in gastronomy, I’m betting on an African clientele. I’ve just come back from Accra and I noticed that there are almost no white people today in the grand hotels, there are only Africans,” he said.
“This is my final project,” he declares. “If I manage to pull it off, that will be an end to my dreams.”