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Nigerien entrepreneur behind Plaza food cart has big plans for his future and his country

August 10, 2018

The threat of meal after meal of cucumber and peanut butter salad sent Moustapha Idrissa’s motivation into overdrive.

Idrissa, a 32-year-old native of Niger, in West Africa, and the owner of Plaza food cart newcomer Mafé Café, came to Santa Fe in 2016 with his pregnant wife, young son and empty pockets, his sights set on an associate degree in dry land farming.

He had an internship at a hydroponics outfit in Alcalde, but it didn’t pay all the bills (or even most of them), so Idrissa and his wife, Balkissa Boubacar, resolved to eat on the cheap every day, culling veggies from the farm and combining them with peanut butter and spices to make a traditional salad from their home country.

“You have to be realistic in life,” Idrissa said. “I know my salary, and I know my schedule. Unless there’s magic, this is what we’re going to be eating.”

It was a depressing proposition, though, so Idrissa, ever the entrepreneur, resolved to make some magic of his own. He decided to open a food cart.

What has followed for Idrissa has been a whirlwind of learning and earning — a nearly 24/7 schedule that’s allowed him not only to feed his family, but to start the gears turning on a plan to feed an entire nation.

Idrissa kicked off his food cart venture at the Sunday Artisan Market at the Railyard with a handful of recipes that he described as the scrambled eggs of Niger — recipes so common and beloved that every kid learns how to make them.

There was tofu, pumpkin and peanut stew served over basmati rice (he subbed in tofu instead of more traditional lamb to appeal to Santa Fe’s vegan crowd), ginger lemonade and hibiscus tea. He sold chicken yassa, a West African favorite prepared with lemon and onions, and lamb stew.

Lines started to form.

“All the fear that we had went away because I was able to do this full time,” Idrissa said. “I was able to secure a living for my family. We eat everything we want now. We didn’t have to eat that peanut cucumber salad. We eat lamb and chicken and everything.”

In Niger, a landlocked country nearly twice the size of Texas, meat is status. The average Nigerien makes about as much in a year as the average American makes in a week, so, Idrissa said, lamb and chicken and out-of-season vegetables are saved for special occasions. Those don’t-hold-your-breath-for-it meals, marking births and paycheck days and hospital stays, are called mafé.

So it was fitting that Idrissa, who won a coveted spot this spring on the Plaza, decided to call his food cart Mafé Café.

This food, he promised, is special.

At his spot on the Plaza’s northwest corner, he offers a series of grab-and-go delights that fuse his homespun favorites with his customers’.

Though, to be fair, he doesn’t take the word “fusion” too seriously. At $3 a pop, his African tacos, served with chicken or tofu, are stickless West African kebabs wrapped in corn tortillas. Still, the flavors of the marinated meat, caramelized onions and tomato “salsa” are undeniably West African.

Idrissa always laughs when people ask him how he procures such rare African spices near the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains.

“I say, ‘No, no, no,’ ” he said. “ ‘We use the same thing. It’s just how you combine them.’ … These are everyday spices that everyone has access to.”

Somehow, those everyday flavors — cilantro, parsley, onion, garlic, ginger, salt, bell pepper and Dijon mustard (a holdover from Niger’s French colonial past) combine to form a savory tang rarely tasted between folds of masa harina.

Idrissa also offers burritos (served with your choice of protein and potatoes, caramelized onion, pico de gallo and salsa) for $7-$8 and a look-alike Navajo taco that’s actually the truest Nigerien item on the menu because, turns out, fry bread knows no diplomatic borders. The Nigerien version, called fari masa, is slightly leavened, a little lighter on the oil and flavored with onion, garlic and a hint of chile. He fills it with marinated lamb or chicken and tomato “salsa.”

Though he’s had positive feedback on his fusion foray, Idrissa plans to add some of his signature stews to the menu soon — especially as the summer heat wanes.

Fry bread isn’t New Mexico’s only cultural link to Idrissa’s home country. In fact, when Idrissa first came to New Mexico, he found himself in a sort of scrub brush-dotted space warp.

Idrissa came to the U.S. in 2005, hoping to raise enough money to support his family back home. His father, a customs officer (“That was the best job you can possibly ask for in that country,” Idrissa said), was set to retire.

Idrissa Yacouba had provided a comfortable life for his 11 children, but still the family lived paycheck to paycheck, and without an income, the future looked bleak.

So, at the age of 18, Moustapha Idrissa headed for Washington, D.C., and cut his teeth in the restaurant business, working front of house, back of house and everywhere in between for a slew of restaurants.

Trouble was, he hated it. The late nights and long hours kept his otherwise rapid-fire brain from ticking at its usual pace, so he decided to drive a taxi instead.

It paid off. Not only did he have more time to think, but he had more time to talk to interesting people about his thoughts.

An idea started to percolate. In Niger, a desperately poor country perhaps best known for its vast Saharan dunes and uranium deposits, agriculture is industry No. 1. About 82 percent of the population is involved in agriculture and/or livestock production, according to the U.S. Department of State. So, Idrissa thought, why not use his time in the states to learn how to better farm arid land?

“I was picking people up from the White House, from the Senate,” Idrissa said. “You pick someone up, and you get this connection, and you can talk to them. So I would say, ‘Hey, I want to do this, but I don’t know how to go about it.’ And people started giving me tips.

“It was so exciting. That part of me was correct: Ask people questions. And the best place was in my taxi.”

Through his taxi network, Idrissa connected with Steve Martin, an Alcalde hydroponics farmer.

He flew to New Mexico in January 2016 to visit Martin on his land. When he stepped off the plane in Albuquerque, Idrissa just about freaked out.

“This place scared the hell out of me,” he said. “I felt foreign and then foreign within foreign. This place looked like my country, but I know I’m not in my country. I’m in the United States, but it doesn’t look like the United States. It’s not the United States that I know.”

It was as though he’d landed in some sort of alternate-universe Niger.

“Can I bring my family here? Will I be able to live here?” Idrissa wondered. “And I prayed. I said a prayer, I said, ‘Oh, God, I really want to do this. If this is a good thing, show me a sign so I can stay.’ ”

The first in a series of signs came the next morning in the form of a juicy, red tomato, ripened in Martin’s greenhouse in the dead cold of winter.

“Everywhere was completely wiped out dry, but here it was, green, lush in his greenhouse. And I loved that. And that’s when I was like, ‘OK, I think I want to do this.’ ”

In Niger, when the mercury rises too high and the tomato-growing season ends, the cost of the fruit, a local favorite, can jump tenfold, pricing most consumers out of the market.

It’s these challenges Idrissa hopes to remedy when he returns to Niger some day in the not-too-distant future. He already has earned two certificates from the community college — one in greenhouse management and another in water treatment. He’s working to finish his associate degree in controlled environment agriculture soon.

When he does head home, he’ll buy some property near the capital city, Niamey, and start a demonstration farm — “a big farm, where everything is happening.” And he’ll teach his countrymen what he’s learned here from the scorched, drought-stricken Santa Fe soil.

“That’s the only way,” he said of his plan. “I don’t see another way out. An entire country, or an entire people, cannot move to another place for better opportunities, so we need to figure out ways to improve people’s lives where they are.”

Ever optimistic, Idrissa intends to forge ahead toward that goal, one fusion taco at a time.

If You Go

What: Mafé Café food cart

Where: Corner of Lincoln Avenue and West Palace Avenue on the Santa Fe Plaza

When: Open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. most days and during Plaza concerts

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