By WILL CONNORSJane Hahn for The Wall Street JournalObama biscuits are wrapped at the United Biscuit factory in Ghana.
ACCRA, Ghana—The expansion of a small cookie factory on this city’s outskirts offers a glimpse of how Obamamania in Africa is developing from a fad into a lasting brand for local companies across the continent, even as the U.S. president’s popularity takes a hit at home. Marc Skaf, a portly man of Lebanese-French stock, is the managing director of United Biscuit Ltd., maker of the “Obama biscuit.” Mr. Skaf is overseeing the expansion of the company’s main factory, which during peak production churns out 2.8 million biscuits a day. The Obama biscuit accounts for about 60% of current production. The round cookie stamped with the company’s logo comes in regular, ginger flavor and the latest, ChocObama. Its package bears an image of Mr. Obama, and can be found in small roadside shops across Ghana.
Obama Cookies Find Sweet Spot in Ghana
Many in Africa consider Mr. Obama, whose father was Kenyan, one of their own. During his visit to Ghana in July 2009, thousands of spectators wearing T-shirts or traditional fabric bearing the president’s image lined the streets to catch a glimpse of his motorcade. That popularity inspired African entrepreneurs. In the months surrounding Mr. Obama’s Ghana visit, hundreds of shops, bars, restaurants and hotels across the continent adopted the Obama name. Dozens of companies put Obama on their products, including bottled water, bubble gum and beer. A year later, many of these products are still selling well, highlighting an African consumer trend that could be termed “brand Obama.” This summer, Mr. Skaf noticed that a Chinese company had begun exporting Obama crackers to Ghana from China. Mr. Skaf says he has plans to release his own Obama cracker soon. Requests to the White House to comment on the proliferation of Obama products in Africa went unanswered.
Obama biscuits are packaged to be sent out to stores.
KenAfric Industries Ltd., one of the biggest confectionery makers in Kenya, sells Magic Obama Bubblegum (strawberry and orange flavored). In Zambia you can buy Obama-branded whiskey and brandy. And in several countries, including semi-autonomous Somaliland, you can eat at the Obama Restaurant or the Obama Cafe. “There was a definite increase in sales around the time Obama announced his candidature,” says John Mwongera, head of sales at KenAfric Industries. Now, however, Mr. Mwongera says, sales of the Obama candies are “purely driven by the usual market forces and branding activities.”
The Obama brand may be most developed in Ghana. In Accra, the capital, there is the Obama Hotel, where a portrait of the president hangs in the busy lobby; guests can stay in the Joe Biden room. On the road to the United Biscuit factory, travelers pass roadside artists; one is selling portraits of boxer Mike Tyson, an unidentified woman in a green bikini, and Mr. Obama, depicted in traditional Ghanaian dress. For five months after Mr. Obama’s Ghana visit, the United Biscuit factory produced only Obama biscuits. Demand eventually tapered off, and Obama biscuits now account for just 60% of the factory’s production.
Mr. Skaf, who has lived in West Africa for more than 20 years, still faces obstacles to further growth. The price of flour—which makes up more than two-thirds of each biscuit—went up 80% recently, without explanation from flour importers. But Mr. Skaf has big plans for the Obama biscuit. Expansion work on his factory is now almost complete. The company has hired additional staff to supplement the 250 he now employs. In August, he rolled out the newest flavor: ChocObama. He is planning another big push for the biscuits in November, as the holiday season rolls around, including an ad campaign—the company’s first.
“It’s the best idea I’ve ever had,” says Mr. Skaf. “In America he is not popular right now. The war, the economy, the oil spill. But here he’s still popular, and I don’t think that will be changing anytime soon.” While an August Gallup poll reported that a majority of Americans, 51%, disapproved of Mr. Obama’s performance as president, in Africa his name continues to be a good way for businesses to attract attention and customers. “Regardless of the status of President Obama’s popularity in the U.S., he continues to be enormously popular in Africa and his name and image are co-opted for many uses,” says David Easterbrook, curator of the Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University, which has been collecting publications and objects from Africa that use Mr. Obama’s name and image.
Despite the challenges, the Obama Biscuits brand is well-established in Ghana. Mr. Skaf introduces himself around town as the “guy who makes Obama biscuits.” His factory manager also has been given a nickname. “Every day on my drive to work people point and yell at me, ‘Obama!’ ” says United Biscuits manager Elie Abou Jaoude. “They don’t know my real name, so they call me Obama.”
—Each week, Africa Dispatch takes a snapshot of a different African place, offering a ground-level view of change on the continent.