Organizers of Food Tech Africa, the continent’s biggest annual food and beverage trade show, expected this year’s attendees to outnumber the 7,000 who came from 31 countries last year. The show is held each July in South Africa, home to the continent’s most advanced food industry. “We have had people falling over themselves wanting to come down to the expo to source new equipment and technology,” John Thomson, spokesperson for Exhibition Management Services (EMS), the organizers, is quoted as saying of this year’s show. He cited examples: A canning factory from Zambia wanted to source tin cans, vegetable oils, cooking spice ingredients and factory equipment; a cashew processor wanted pressing and milling equipment; the Zambian Export Growers Association wanted a whole range of equipment and services. “We have had a similarly positive reception from Mauritius, Ghana, Malawi and Tanzania, all of whom are coordinating industry buyers under official groups,” Thomson said.
Industry experts say the growing participation of African countries, particularly those south of the Sahara Desert, reflects strong growth in agro-industries, thanks in part to the attention African governments are now paying to agro-processing. Many hail the agricultural sector as “the awakening giant of Africa.”
Processing food on a commercial scale was never in the colonial cards for Africa. Instead, the continent’s vast potential for food production was buried under a system that positioned colonies as suppliers of raw materials. Even with the awakening interest in agro-processing, food production in most African countries still is a minimal secondary industry. Handouts of food, such as occur under the United States’ Food for Peace program, are no help to these nascent industries. Neither are imports of processed food manufactured by multinational corporations. ActionAid, an international anti-poverty agency based in South Africa, complains that food imports are keeping Sierra Leone, for example, from realizing agricultural self-sufficiency and meeting the goal of eradicating hunger by 2015. Sierra Leone imports 80 percent of its food, mostly from the United States and Europe, leaving the local agricultural industry feeble and farmers struggling to compete.
Some countries are pressing forward, nonetheless. Zambia, for example, is fast emerging as a source of both raw material and processed goods for agribusiness and the food industry throughout Southern Africa. At this year’s Food Tech, Zambian exhibitors showcased 15 varieties of canned vegetables and fruits produced in a newly refurbished factory in Lusaka, the capital, and which already are sold in the country’s major stores. More than 200,000 cans of these products are exported each month to neighboring countries. Zambia also showcased fish—canned, dried, fresh and filleted; fresh organically grown fruit and vegetables; and honey, both in bulk and packaged for retail. Zambia currently exports more than 700 metric tons of organically certified honey to Western Europe. Its Arabica coffee is popular in Japan and the United States, where it is marketed as an exclusive Starbucks “Black Apron” coffee. Zambia even exports oleoresin for use as a natural food coloring. Ground paprika and paprika pod and seed are available in increasing quantities from Zambia as well.
Not to be discounted are the changing tastes and demands of African consumers. Economic development is bringing about an increasingly affluent middle class characterized by more working couples. Like savvy consumers everywhere, they are looking for a combination of value for money, health and nutrition, convenience and affordability. The result, EMS says, is “an explosive demand” for convenience foods and home meal replacements. Restaurants are springing up everywhere as “eating out” becomes more
Not surprisingly, non-African suppliers, notably from Asia and the Middle East, are seizing opportunities in this burgeoning food market. EMS notes that an Indian food giant made its appearance at FoodTech for the first time this year in hopes of growing its export market for fruit juices, cooking pastes, sauces and items for institutional food purchases. One Dubai trading company, a joint venture with one of China’s leading food manufacturers, attended the expo with plans to set up a permanent shop in South Africa. The company already distributes an extensive range of consumer goods and food products across the Middle East. Also exhibited at FoodTech were dates from Saudi Arabia and food packaging from the United Arab Emirates, including containers, baking molds and sheets, foil and film, bags and food wrapping, even designer snack-food packs.
Are there opportunities in Africa’s food sector for Black professionals and entrepreneurs in the Diaspora? Most certainly. If others can find them, so can we.
By Rosalind McLymont