Shopping a daily puzzle on remote St Helena

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If you think grocery shopping is a chore, spare a moment for those on the tiny island of Saint Helena who never know what will be on the shelves from one day to the next.

“This is like living under Soviet rule,” jokes Francois Haffner, a French tourist determined to eat well on the remote South Atlantic island, famous as the place the French military leader Napoleon was exiled until his death in 1821.

“In the first store there is butter, in another there are lemons, and in the third you can find some cream. There are no greens, and eggs aren’t there every day,” said an exasperated Haffner.

“The fish comes at 1:00 pm, the bread after 11:00 am — but no later than 12 noon — and all the shops close at 5:00 pm.”

The shopping schedule requires that hungry tourists and residents dedicate a good chunk of time to planning how to fill their stomachs.

“There are no stores where you can find everything, and shopping takes some time,” said Haffner.

– Choice is a luxury –

Still, he is determined never to visit the frozen food section, which was stocked with last year’s Christmas pudding in March.

In contrast with Haffner, the 4,200 inhabitants of the British island are more relaxed about the grocery situation, having resigned themselves to the reality that choice is a luxury in a place where supplies come only every three weeks on a ship from Cape Town.

As a result, shopping in the island’s capital, Jamestown, requires some flexibility and a close knowledge of the ship’s schedule.

“Of course, you do not want to starve, but it is better not to look for something specific,” says David Pryce, a native of England who studies insects on the island.

A successful islander has to balance patience with spontaneity, he says.

“You have to make the rounds of stores every day. And if you see something, you have to buy it.”

However, sometimes excitement over new items causes problems, says Tara Thomas, whose family owns four convenience stores.

“When bottled water hits the shop, people bulk buy. They panic buy, and they create another shortage,” she says.

“If people had a normal consumer behaviour, we wouldn’t have so many problems.”

– Little local produce –

Most produce on the island comes from Britain or South Africa.

Little is made domestically. There are cows, for example, but no fresh milk. “We have farmers, but they do not produce enough,” moans Thomas.

What little local produce exists is often bartered between islanders or snapped up by hotels and restaurants before reaching the shelves.

Still, some are hoping to capitalise on the scarcity. Mirroring the fashion overseas for self-sufficiency, entrepreneurs have started small-scale farming.

Joshua Martin, 39, has set up a business delivering tomatoes and cucumbers that he produces in polytunnels.

While his venture is a success, Martin complains there is little coordination between the producers. “Everyone produces the same,” he says.

Then there is the issue of reliability.

“The problem is that we are not regular,” says Aaron Legg, a 30-year-old guide who grows bananas. “Retailers cannot rely on us and they have to import.”

It’s not for lack of want, says Legg, who plans to start growing onions.

“The island imports 70 tonnes of onions a year from South Africa,” he says incredulously. “If there were onions every day on the shelves people would buy more. There is a huge market.”

Shop owners worry that with such short supply they will not be able to accommodate an influx of tourists when weekly flights start between the island and Johannesburg in February next year.

With the monthly ship service set to end after the introduction of the flights, retailers worry their produce options will decrease.

Now they’re in a quandary. “It is not profitable for a ship to come more often,” says Nick Thorpe, one of the leading importers on the island.

“I have the feeling that if they want the ship to come more often, they will have to subsidise it,” he says.

Whether or not that will happen is another story.

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