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.


I Hope They Have Cheese

I have to be quite honest here, grocery shopping in Shanghai is pretty great.  I want for few things.  It is China after all, where they manufacture and grow just about everything under the sun.  That is not to say you may not miss some things.  For example if you are a die hard fan of Trader Joe’s or Amy’s Enchiladas or the shrimp and avocado sushi rolls they make at the deli at Whole Foods, then you are gonna have to do without.  But with a few adjustments you can find most of the things you need and want.  Sure, sometimes you might pay through the nose for your must-have items (see my earlier post) and other times you might have to set aside some of your food safety and security concerns.

I generally shop at four supermarkets, all within a half mile radius of my apartment.  The one I patronize the most is the City Shop supermarket located in the basement of my apartment complex.  Located in one of the swankest addresses in town (voted several years running as one of the top serviced apartment complexes in the city), the prices are not going to be the most competitive, but I am all about paying a little extra for convenience.  And being able to stop in on my walk home, or during lunch, or a quick visit before the nanny heads home (i.e. without my daughter) is worth the extra money to me.  I will also go with my daughter.  They have child-sized shopping carts so the kids can help out, which C generally loves to do.  They also sell, right next to the front cash register, medium-sized jars filled with water, plants, and tiny fish that serve as mini aquariums or a bunch of cheap plastic kids toys with candy — either of these items will keep my daughter entertained while I shop.  And when all else fails (i.e. C opts to roam free at the supermarket — though not in the fish tank aisle, which she is afraid of because sometimes the shrimp jump out of the tanks), I know my daughter is safe there as all the staff know her.


The Olé fruit section is a thing of beauty

Once or twice a month we head across the street to the Olé supermarket.  This place is so swank that they have an accent over the “e” in Ole.  Reportedly some 70% of their items are imported and their places reflect that.  If I buy a single can of Diet Coke at City Shop it costs me 2.5 RMB (US$ 0.36) but I can get what appears to be an identical can at Olé for 9 RMB (US$1.30) because it is imported from South Korea.  Still their fruit section is dazzling.  I may not want to spend 80-100 RMB (US$12 to $14.50) for a few pints of raspberries or some white cherries, but sometimes I like to look at them stacked up beautifully in the section and wonder about the people who do.  There are times though that City Shop’s fruit section is sometimes wanting and a trip across the street will mean acquiring the strawberries or pomegranates I know are in season.  Olé also has this super-delish Italian-imported vanilla gelato made with Madagascan vanilla bean that makes my heart leap.  I do not often eat ice cream, but when I do, I forever want it to be this kind of creamy goodness.  Olé also has better seasonal – i.e. Halloween and Christmas – selections when those times of year roll around.  C sees heading to Olé as a real treat – she often asks at odd times, like 9 PM at night, to go to the “across the street supermarket” because they have carts in the shape of cars and sell miniature hot dogs baked in bread.  Dreamy.

Then on the rare occasion I also shop at Pines, a mom-and-pop kind of enterprise that tends to have imported goodies you can find no where else.  I have found Country Kitchen pancake syrup, Betty Crocker cake mix, and some Chef Boyardee.  OK.  I realize that some people might have just balked at calling these “goodies” but it is all a matter of perspective and upbringing.  For me, these preservatives in a bottle/box/can remind me of my childhood and America.  I do not buy them often, but sometimes I  feel better knowing they are available if and when I want them.  There is also a supermarket in the basement of the Westgate shopping center (梅龙镇广场 or Plum Dragon Town Square if you were to translate it directly), where the U.S. Consulate visa section is located.  It is part of the Isetan Department Store and so has lots of Japanese imports.  Fruits are often astronomically expensive but so perfectly beautiful that at some price points I cannot help but buy.


A Trader Joes/Whole Foods-kind of experience at Hunter Gatherer

There are also tons of little family run stores, often for fruits and vegetables.  Urumuqi North Street is one not too far away that has dozens of these along its length, including the famous “Avocado Lady.”  If I happen to be walking back from the main Consulate building, located on the same street, I will pop in for some bargain priced locally-produced fruit.  Some people make an effort to head out to wet markets to buy their produce.  If you scroll up to paragraph two you will note that I shop very close to home.  Some might say I am lazy but really I am just a time-strapped working single mom who chooses time-saving proximity to less time conscious bargain-hunting (!).  Wet markets also tend to be places where one can buy “fresh” meat, sometimes so fresh it is still alive, and live seafood.  C does not just avoid the seafood aisle of our City Shop due to spontaneously jumping shrimp, but because she also has a history of sudden, um, illness when she sees crabs, lobsters, and such.  Not really my idea of fun.

There are also other grocery experiences for those who want something different.  Hunter Gatherer is an organic, farm-to-table, restaurant/grocery or a “seed-to-table ecosystem that serves and celebrates real food” according to their website.  In addition to store shopping you can also order online at one of numerous places like Kate & Kimi, Fields, and Epermarket.  I used to do the online grocery shopping and delivery when I lived in Washington, DC as a childless hipster.  (Okay, when I was childless because I do not think anyone would have ever called me a hipster)  However, I was really slow to catch on in Shanghai.  While I had colleagues who had ordered their first grocery delivery within a week of arrival it took me, oh, I don’t know, 18 months?  I received an online invite to join in the grocery delivery revolution, and all I had to do was order my first order and I would receive a welcome basket of seasonal veggies for free.  I ordered something like 250 RMB (US$36.20) of groceries to give it a go.  Imagine my surprise when they were not only delivered on time but the box of free stuff was enormous!


The free welcome box!  It contained a bag of potatoes, a bunch of eggplant, a box of tomatoes, a box of mushrooms, a box of carrots, 2 ears of corn, 2 avocados, 2 bell peppers, 1 zucchini, 1 head of broccoli, and 1 pumpkin!!

Shopping in Shanghai is not always bliss.  Although I prefer to head to one supermarket each one has special things that the others do not.  One will have Japanese soy bean rice crackers.  Another will have frozen raspberries.  A third will have Tartare, the French cream cheese with fine herbs.  Yet another will have Tostitos.  Or at least they will some of the time.  There is always the chance that a store that has a favorite import today will not have it tomorrow or next week or maybe ever again.

About six months into our time in Shanghai, C and I are on one of our trips visiting Olé when C spies a box of chocolate Lucky Charms.  She has never had them before but declares suddenly she must have them.  I am reluctant to spend US$12 on a box of cereal she might only eat two bites of, but I find myself buying it anyway.  She loves it. I buy a second box.  She wants to eat it for breakfast every day.  I go to buy another box, they do not have anymore.  Not that week, or the next, or months after that.  I buy a couple of boxes while on Medevac and again on R&R and bring them back in our suitcases.  Friends bring a few boxes when they visit.  But I do not find it at my supermarkets again.


Where did the rest of the cheese go?  Evidence of the beginning of the Great Cheese Shortage of 2015

There was also the Great Cheese Shortage of 2015, followed by another Lesser Cheese Shortage of 2016.  It was the first that prompted me to first consider writing a blog post about grocery shopping in Shanghai with this title.  It was right around the National Day.  In mid-September the once full shelves of cheese began to empty out.  Little by little the good, imported cheese was gone leaving only “cheese” cheese — you know, the kind of cheese that has to be put into parentheses.  I took the photo above of the limited cheese selection and another of a depleted imported processed meats section and a supermarket employee tried to stop me.  Seriously?  Yes, seriously.  I was approached and told to stop taking pictures and she tried to swipe my phone.  I guess the Great Cheese Shortage was supposed to be kept under wraps, not shared with the outside world.  But now you know.

I cannot remember how long the cheese shortage lasted either year but they did not appear to be isolated incidents because the cheese selection diminished in all the shops I frequented.  This past year I thought I might circumvent the shortage and order my cheese from Epermarket, only to find that they too reported that the items I wished for were currently out of stock.  Yet eventually the stocks returned and appeared even more bountiful than before.  Huge bags of Monterey Jack cut into cubes for the ridiculous price of US$20.  I will leave you wondering if I bought them or not.

It has taken me far longer to get around to writing this particular post than I had anticipated.  And here I am nearing my time in Shanghai.  This puts things into perspective.  I know how good we have had it here.  I am ready to have some extended time back in the US during home leave and training to get my fill of all those food items I have missed and a good ole US of A prices, not high-import-taxes prices.  But then we head to Malawi and I think about what might be in store (or not in store, get it?) for us there.  I have heard about some food shortages that make my complaints here seem especially petty.  I am really not sure what to expect, but I still hope they have cheese.