A tale of ice water in Ghana
Editor's note: Ice water now sells for GHp30 or GHp20 in some places. Over the years, it has undergone several changes not only in price, but also how it is packed and even the songs that accompany its hawking on the streets. As Ghana celebrates her 59th Independence Day, YEN.com.gh presents a fun bit of history behind what is easily the commonest commodity on the Ghanaian market, ice water!
The journey of drinking water with pleasure in Ghana has been rather interesting. Clay pots and deep wells used to be the Ghanaian way of cooling water. Then also came the times when water was treated with smoked palm husks to give it a distinctive flavour. Although these methods are still in vogue in some parts of the country, it is a fact that the refrigerator and its ability to provide ice-cold water to quench the thirst of many Ghanaians has turned water into lucrative business.
It became commonplace to see people (especially young ladies) at busy lorry parks and crowded places, carrying buckets of ice-cold water, with beads of chilled water dripping along the sides of their buckets. Accompanying the bucket was one measuring cup and a set of multi-coloured cups. With the measuring cup, the seller would scoop the iced water from the bucket to fill one of the other cups for her customers.
It soon became an unwritten code of conduct for the sellers to sing a tune to attract people to the water being sold by the cupful. Some of the sellers would just sing the phrase ‘Yes, Ice’ as though they were selling ice blocks instead. Many sellers joined the chorus without knowing the connotation of the lyrics.
The downside of serving customers with the same cups over and over again was the ease with which diseases were spread. Often, although many drank from the same cup, the sellers were too busy selling to thoroughly clean their cups. More health concerns were raised when news broke that particles of faecal matter were once found on the ice blocks that were used to cool the water. Clearly, a new method of packaging was required to make ice water truly hygienic, thus the plain transparent polythene seemed the right option. Though the great Ghanaian ingenuity another solution was found in ‘industrialised’ sachet water; or so it seemed.
The ‘original sachet water’ - ‘Panyin de Panyin’
Ice water in tied miniature poly clear plastic bags later became referred to as ‘Panyin de Panyin’ (loosely meaning the old is still the king), with the introduction of ‘industrialised’ sachet water. This packaging for the ice water and sometimes smoke-flavoured water was very good for travellers. Initially, the size of the bag was such that a consumer could go through the whole day with just one bag of the water in hand. They only had to tie the punched area to preserve the water.
Little children fell under the weight while others let go of the bagged water, which picked up dirt from the ground, or the bag may burst as a result of the fall. From an initial price of ȼ10 (from what I remember), the new ‘ice water’ moved steadily through ¢20, ¢30 to ȼ50 (old cedi currency) before going on retirement. And her retirement was dramatic.
‘Pure water’ is born
Soon came on the scene the ‘pure water’ phenomenon. To date, its purity is in doubt and many wonder if this description is not a misnomer. The very first sample of pure water, I remember without a doubt, was called ‘Sultan’, which appeared in the late 1990s. It was in a square-shaped, relatively firmer sachet and had a green label with the inscription ‘Sultan’ over an image of two crossed swords.
The inscription of Sultan in colour and alongside it the name ‘pure water’ seemed to have worked like magic. Again, the name Sultan must have given the Ghanaian consumer the impression that this brand of pure water had Arabian links, perhaps that it was imported from Saudi Arabia! If so, then this made it more than welcome on the Ghanaian market (we love everything and anything imported).
Sultan actually gave its consumers a sign of affluence and it soon became a status symbol: those who patronised this brand were seen as rich and civilised. It soon became the preferred brand, since it was seen as hygienic compared with the soft, round and knotted ‘panyin de panyin', which had hitherto reigned supreme.
Panyin de Panyin is floored but not without a fight
The Maame Panyin (the elderly woman) started losing her hold on consumers. This followed persistent complaints of dirty particles floating in the water. Ghana’s original ‘sachet water’ was now being ridiculed and being called names, one of which was ‘Yoomo Fofoo’ (the sagging breast of an old lady). This name seemed perfect, considering the fact that older folks stuck to their knotted water, seeing it as more hygienic and flavoured.
Apparently, the old folks were saying that the old soldier can be subdued but he never dies. They were right. I think they foresaw the fall of the Arabian Knight, and embraced it. They were ready to help him fall deeper for his treasonable offence against their beloved ‘ice water’ as some fondly called it. Well, I agree with them. Maame Panyin knew how to take care of herself. As clean water should be, she had no smell nor taste except, of course, when treated in the smoke process.
Sultan, on the other hand, had a pungent smell and an appalling taste. I remember I threw up the first time I tried it (I was called a villager by my friends−another reason why I detested the Sultan brand of pure water).
It had the smell of green algae and the taste was sour (isn’t water supposed to be tasteless?). I don’t know whether to attribute these foul qualities to the possibility that the water had expired, but there was no expiry regulation then so one could not tell. (But for each of the five times or so that I tasted it, I threw up). Some friends theorised that the smell and taste were due to the treatment (really, shouldn’t this rather have improved the taste?)
Despite these downsides, the Arabian Knight managed to kick our old woman out of business. The death of the latter was slow but steady as sellers carried her along with Sultan in their pans. It was just the way the old cedi notes had had to pave way for the new ones in 2007. The consumer now had a choice between the pure water and its knotted counterpart. Gradually, she bowed out of the market and the only traces of her came through similarly packaged ice cubes.
The birth of a business idea
I love Ghana for a reason−it’s a nation full of copycats. Just start one thing today and tomorrow thousands of Ghanaians will follow suit. That is quite good, though, it breeds competition which raises the standards of products and service delivery (in ideal situations). Perhaps other pure water consumers had had their fair share of my experience with Sultan, leading to incessant complaints about him. Bam! An idea was born. Apparently, there was hope for Yoomo foofo : she only needed some breast-firming treatment. And so with the sachet-making machine, business-minded Ghanaians gave the old lady a new attire, firmer and tighter than the original. Good for the economy.
Soon the market was flooded with reconditioned ‘pure water’. Water had become a commodity rather than a necessity for survival. All one needed was the capital to purchase a sachet-making machine, to explore the new gold mine.
To make it more indigenous, enterprising Ghanaians gave the old lady local names: Nsu, Adom, Gye Nyame were just a few. Other brands just maintained their English names. I guess it reflected their standard (incidentally, that’s an example of one such brand with an English name, Standard pure water). Other English names were Glacier, Gocool and Everpure (really?).
Although most of the former brands are now extinct, some of the newcomers are still in serious business. Some people used pure water to propagate the gospel, and this resulted in pure water names such as ‘God’s love’, ‘Saviour’, ‘Grace’, ‘King Jesus’, to mention but a few (smart Christians huh?). The fine names notwithstanding, hygiene at some of the places where the water is produced is suspect. It seems as if the quality and attractiveness of the packaging are more important than the purity of the water itself.
….And bottled water arrives!
After these phases, came the bottled water which started gaining more grounds in the 2010’s. Now it also sits competing with the other types from vendors. Recently a friend paid a visit to Kumasi and showed me pictures of all these phases of water still been sold in Kumasi, so after all pinyin di pinyin and all other forms still exists.
Now, when bottled water came, it was seen as a drink preferred by the bourgeoisies’ in Ghana, but with time, it is all over the place and with a minimum of GH₵1.00, one could buy a bottle water. Like I previously stated, Ghana is not a country without competition. Gradually bottled water turned into a business that many have started cashing in.
Voltic used to be the popular brand making money till the others joined to give them a run for their monies. Now it is more of preference and the brand you are interested in buying. As bottled water gets popular, many now worry about the amount of acidic content in each bottle, so now the companies in business decide to state the alkaline content in each bottle of water and my guess is to perhaps attract a better market.
Pure water regulations to the rescue?
By the early 2000s, pure water was everywhere on the Ghanaian market. But following revelations of poor hygienic conditions at some pure water factories, and the subsequent abuse of the commodity, regulation had to set in. Then the Ghana Standards Board (GSB) went on the rampage to clear the market of all shoddy pure water products. These products had made the city dirty because of the litter of the numerous sachets and along with this menace, water-borne infections.
The GSB directed that all producers should start indicating the expiry dates of their products on the sachet and with a GSB symbol. With time this became the norm, but there were still bad products on the market and yet, curiously, with the GSB symbol.
Periodically, the GSB, now Ghana Standards Authority (GSA), comes out with a list of recognized sachet water producers. Though this exercise is good, it doesn’t seem to go far enough, considering the new brands being churned out (which are constantly being advertised as if they were drugs). Every nook and cranny of the country is littered with sachets, and the initial zeal to clamp down on shoddy water products seems to have ebbed. I do not even see the GSA symbol on most of the products anymore. Perhaps, the GSA needs to do a little more in this direction.
So, finally, here we are; it’s a little over a decade since pure water burst onto the Ghanaian market, but I am still wondering…really, how pure has our ‘pure water’ become? I pause for an answer.