Adventures in Conakry Grocery Shopping

Heading to the local supermarkets can tell you something about a place – the prices, the availability or scarcity of certain products, and unexpected items. The first time to the supermarkets in a new country is eye-opening. Having previously written about grocery shopping in Shanghai and Malawi, I knew I would want to write about my food acquisition adventures in Conakry.

First things first: Guinean currency. When nice and crisp, the bills are beautiful and colorful. They also have lots and lots and lots of zeroes. One US dollar is equal to about 8600 Guinean francs, so you find yourself carrying around a lot of cash. The coupon holder I used to carry my large stacks of Malawian kwacha once again made its appearance as my wallet. Although there are more denominations of Guinean francs than Malawian kwacha, the smaller bills are few and far between. In my experience most people use only the 5,000, 10,000, and 20,000 franc bills. If what you owe is between those, it usually just gets rounded up or down.

Even after six months, I am constantly getting confused about the currency. I advertised something for sale on an expat site listing it for 20,000 francs and the response was overwhelming. Well, no wonder. Here I was selling a brand new, never opened digital scale for a little over $2. I had meant to advertise it for 200,000!

On my first ever grocery trip my tally came to 3,029,725 francs! That is $350 and it made sense for a first time shopping trip to get everything from cleaning supplies to condiments and spices to fruits, veggies, and meat, but wow, looking at all those numbers kind of threw me.

I find grocery shopping in Conakry both a tedious exercise and a bit of a scavenger hunt game. Due to the traffic, I generally only go out to the store once a week on Saturday mornings, unless it is “Sanitation Saturday” — that is the first Saturday of the month when, by order of the government, the roads are supposed to be clear of traffic so the city can conduct street cleaning. Each week I go to at least two supermarkets – the A to Z Express and the Coccinelle on Rue de Donka – because I cannot everything I want at one place. Similar to in Malawi, the supermarkets I frequent are run by Lebanese and Indian proprietors. I find A to Z Express to be better for meat and cheeses, frozen foods, and fresh baked bread. I go to A to Z Express first (pass the North Korean Embassy, then take the first exit on the roundabout, then take a U turn at the first opportunity, then skirt into the A to Z Express parking lot). After A to Z Express I head back up the Rue de Donka towards home, take the second exit from the roundabout, past the Shell station, and then into the Coccinelle parking lot. Coccinelle is better for fruits and vegetables. The selection is often limited, but this is the place to get imported favorites like broccoli and berries.

For these imported goodies one does pay a very pretty penny.

There are locally grown fruits and vegetables that are plentiful in Conakry’s roadside markets. One can easily find potatoes, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, carrots and lettuce, and oranges, avocados, apples, pears, grapes, pineapples, bananas, mangos, and watermelon. I have been pleasantly surprised and impressed with the quality and variety to be found alongside Conakry’s streets. My nanny/housekeeper volunteered, nay, insisted, that she could get these fruits and vegetables for me. This seemed easiest at first, but sometimes I would forget to ask her. After awhile I decided I could stop at these stands myself whenever I saw them and had a yearning for fresh produce. But I bought a pineapple at one that was not so great and my housekeeper used that to point out that if I wanted the good stuff at the best prices, then I should send her. Most of the time I do, but every so often I cannot seem to help myself as I pass a makeshift stand with some delicious looking fruit and figure — I can drive around Conakry all by myself, surely I can buy some fruit, right?

Fruits and vegetables that are not widely available domestically are imported from Europe and can cost quite a lot more than prices at home. In the photo above I have two capsicums – one red, one yellow – for 94,600 francs ($11), a head of broccoli for 139,750 francs ($16.20), a small container of raspberries or blueberries for 95,000 francs ($11), and a small container of strawberries for 175,000 francs ($20).

Roadside fruit stands in Conakry

Here are some other crazy prices I have paid for imported items:

  • 2 nectarines for 130,350 francs ($15.12)
  • 6 pears for 145,750 ($16.91)
  • 0.19 kg of cherries for 104,500 francs ($12.12)
  • 2 pomegranates 298,750 francs ($34.66)
  • 8 small apricots 243,000 francs ($28.19)
  • 300 g of Philadelphia cream cheese 137,000 francs ($15.89)
  • 1 kg of frozen breaded chicken breast 251,000 francs ($29.12)
  • 4 slices of deli chicken 112,000 francs ($13)
  • 1 pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream 160,000 francs ($18.56)

The upside is that presently U.S. diplomats serving in Conakry receive an additional cost of living adjustment to help defray these costs.

Prices were just one part of the Conakry shopping challenges. Similar to in Malawi, there were a few items that I was so excited to find in town and then after a month or so the items disappeared from the shelves and I never found them again. For instance, I found frozen rosti, sort of like American hash browns. They were so, so good. And then they were no more. More painful to me though was the Diet Coke tease as I may have a wee bit of of hankering for the caffeinated beverage. (I don’t drink coffee) Before arriving in Guinea I had checked in with my social sponsor about the availability of Diet Coke or Coke Light. She told me that I would have no problem finding it. And I didn’t, for the first couple of weeks. Then it was nowhere to be found. I used to be a Diet Coke purist, but things were getting dicey. Luckily I found some Coke Zero, sometimes. And the small Employee Association store at the Embassy sometimes had (and I have no clue why) Spar supermarket brand “American diet cola” and “American cola zero.” Whatever it took. But in the last couple of weeks even those were become scarce. When we first arrived we also found Dr. Pepper, my daughter’s favorite soda, but that too has disappeared from the shelves.

Cheese, glorious cheese – this could be anywhere in Europe, but no, its in downtown Conakry

On occasion I have sought out other shopping locales. Prima Center is basically Conakry’s only mall. It is open air with some small shops, restaurants (including a frozen yogurt place!). It is anchored by a Walmat-ish supermarket that is, at least for me, more miss than hit. I found Diet Coke there back in the early boon days and, very surprisingly, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Prima also has a pretty good selection of cheese. But those were really the only items that drew me to Prima.

I had also heard rumor of and seen on my Google maps the “American Food Store.” One day I decided to stop by, which turned out to be harder than expected. The store is located just off of Rue de Donka but on a side road that is blocked from entry right in front of the store. To reach the store one has to turn off Rue de Donka several blocks before in order to access the side road. When I visited the grille gates were down over the windows and there was a one foot wide and several foot deep ditch directly in front of the store. Frankly, it looked abandoned.

The parking, or I guess what best passed for parking, was a dirt and rock strewn square lot behind the building. Several cars were already haphazardly parked leaving me an overgrown grass area sandwiched between a partially crumbling cement wall and a narrow dirt road. As I struggled to get into the space I considered just giving up and driving off. Yet I am glad I eventually managed and headed into the store.

Looks can be deceiving. The seemingly abandoned American Food Store has surprising goodies inside and the Prima Shopping Center supermarket looks fancy from outside, but the there are often empty shelves.

It was a little slice of Americana inside. Though September, the store was decorated for July 4th. Maybe it is American Independence Day every day at the American Food Store? The shelves were also full of quintessential American brands such as McCormick pure vanilla extract, Domino sugar, A1 steak sauce, and Pillsbury cake mixes and icing. My daughter C was happy to see items like Caprisun juice pouches, Swiss Miss hot cocoa, and Hershey’s syrup. Despite these goodies I only went once. The traffic, having already stopped at two supermarkets, and the parking issue were enough to keep me away.

Ultimately, I found Guinean supermarkets stocked better than expected but shopping still presented many challenged that took quickly took the fun out of the adventure and turned it into a tiresome chore. Thank goodness for the mini mart located in our housing at Kakimbo Towers as it let me quickly pick up staples like milk, cheese, eggs, bread, and the like without having to deal with the traffic or supermarkets. The shopping in Conakry was okay, but not a highlight.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s