Some legends need no introduction. All they need to have are endless eulogies. One of such legends in question is the undisputable champion, also known as Agege bread. Regarded as one of the most popular Nigerian meals, you can find the supple loaves in the most diverse places.
From breakfast tables, garages, to being hawked on the streets of Lagos, Agege bread is praised for its soft texture and long shelf life. It is often paired with butter, hot chocolate beverages, and another legend in its weight class, beans, aka Ewa agoyin.
Popular among low-income earners, Agege bread has put smiles on the hungry faces of Nigerians for as long as we remember. However, we barely know anything about its origin story. How did the production of this transcendent pleasure begin?
Back in 1913, Jamaican born Amos Shackleford arrived in Lagos and started his bakery business. This earned him the title “The Bread King of Nigeria.” His bakery thrived for a pretty long time and continued to cater to the town of Agege in Lagos state until 1960 when there was a disruption of bus services.
As is often the case with the biggest household names, bucketloads of money get made when you’re solving a need. Thus, seeing that there was still hot demand for this breakfast meal with no supply, a man named Alhaji Ayokunnu spotted a good business opportunity. He started his bakery from his home, which was in, you guessed right, Agege.
Here’s the interesting part, he needed to enter the market with his bread “correctly.” He travelled back to his village in southern Nigeria and returned with young ladies who could hawk the bread loaves on the streets of Lagos.
Present Day Agege Bread
Before buyers gave it the name “Agege bread,” there was really no known name. Today it has made its way from the breakfast tables of low-income owners to those in the homes of some of the fanciest Nigerians because, as they say in pidgin language, “who no like better thing?”
There is more demand for it, and so many other indigenous bakers who have had the skill passed down to them from generations of excellent bakers have gone on to create their bakeries to produce this incredible breakfast wonder.
Often hawked by young women on their heads on the streets, the sweet white loaf, usually oblong, isn’t hard to miss. When you buy it, you can taste years of perfection. You can tell it has gone through an expert kneading process. This process employs a machine called the “dough break” introduced by Shackleford (a device that looks like a giant pasta machine that squeezes the dough between a pair of rollers).
Although this food has been praised for its delicious taste and shelf life, there are also attendant health risks. So, let’s get back to our history lesson again. During the President Ibrahim Babangida military regime in 1980, wheat imports were banned.
At the time, Nigerian produced wheat was poor in quality, so bakers resorted to using “improvers” to artificially boost the bread’s fluffiness. More recently, some bakeries have turned to one substance, potassium bromate, banned by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
A known carcinogenic (having the potential to cause cancer) substance, it’s become the bane of the industry. However, some bakers have denied using the banned substance despite lab tests providing evidence to the contrary.
Despite the health risks, a lot of Nigerians have not stopped patronising Agege bread vendors. It even appears they won’t stop, not now or ever. What is with us today may continue to span over generations because of its history and the satisfaction it brings.
At the end of the day, the low-income Nigerians don’t care much for health risks. They just want to get fed. Though not an ideal saying, we are certainly sure you would be met with retorts of “disease no dey kill African man” if you spell out health hazards of Agege bread. Just another day in Nigeria, I guess.