Local independent bakers are feeling the heat in the kitchen, as mega-supermarket chains, many of them from South Africa, have crowded them out of business with their in-store bakeries and lower prices. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports on the demise of the independent bakery, once a cornerstone of the communal economy
Not too long ago, the small-time bakery was a convenient communal meeting point of sorts, children darting in and out of the doors on errands, adults queuing up early for the freshest loaves and confectionary items, as the syrupy aroma of baked goods filled the air and wafting out to entice other customers on the streets.
Villages around the country took pride in their bakers, who employed their young school-leavers, and even in major urban areas, discerning consumers knew exactly what time the freshest bread would be on the shelf every morning and evening.
Today, the rise and spread of supermarket giants, out of the cities, through the towns and into the villages, has meant the integration of retail activities. Where a village’s shopping centre boasted an independent bakery, butchery and grocer’s all proudly owned by citizens, a retail chain would march in, put up a single store and have the in-store bakery, butchery and grocery under one roof.
The major retail chains such as Choppies, Spar, Payless, Sefalana, Saverite have divvied up the country’s cities, towns and villages, even going head to head neighbourhood by neighbourhood, squeezing out independent bakers, with their lower prices and other competitive advantages.
Today, the Botswana Millers Association estimates that at least 96% of the country’s bakeries are located in-store, a fact anyone can easily verify by driving around Gaborone and looking for a standalone bakery.
“What’s killing us as small businesses is that we don’t have the financial muscle to take on their economies of scale,” explains Prestige Bakery managing director, Reuben Keddy.
“For the supermarkets, bread is just a crowdpuller, but for us we are undiversified businesses. That is what is killing us.
“The supermarkets pull down the prices of their bread and make up the difference on other items. They operate as chains and can approach suppliers to secure major discounts, for instance, for flour.”
A snap survey by Mmegi around Gaborone this week found that the price of a no-label loaf of white bread ranges from P4.95 in Spar, to P5.45 in Choppies and P6.45 in Pick n Pay. Meanwhile, Capri, one of the last standing independent bakeries, sells the same loaf for P6.65.
Independent bakeries also say the bylaws are skewed against them in their fight against the in-store bakeries. In most areas, licensing authorities demarcate standalone bakeries as light industry meaning they can only set up in those areas. The rules are different, however, for the in-store bakeries, whose “parent” shops are demarcated as commercial and located as such, in prime, high human traffic areas. “Who leaves the malls and goes to the industrial area to buy in the bakery.
“Why don’t these in-store bakeries face the same conditions as us? The areas we are allowed to operate in are demarcated as industrial and a totally isolated from the movement of people.
“Why are the in-store being given licences for commercial areas,” Keddy asks.
Curiously, as the squeeze has been put to independent bakers, they have turned their guns, not on the supermarkets, but the millers who supply them with their major input, wheat flour.
Local millers and bakers have waged an eight-year war over the 15% levy charged on wheat flour imports, an initiative introduced by government in 2003 to shield the then infant local milling industry from predatory pricing and dumping by the larger, dominant South African industry.