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‘Packaging' Africa’s small and medium-sized agro-enterprises

Workers label boxes and jars for shipping/selling in the Eswatini Kitchen factory in Manzini, Swaziland. Photograph: FAO/Giulio Napolitano
21 Mar 2018

From the metallic skylines of Lagos, Nigeria to Zoug, a quiet city in Western Saharan known for little more than nearby Neolithic artwork, food systems are changing at a dramatic pace across Africa. Consumption patterns have shifted and are likely to transform even more with increasing urban populations. If these trends continue, half of Africa’s population will be urban by 2030, up from 39 percent in 2010. The region’s middle class is also surging forward - a billion more Africans are predicted to join the ranks of this socio-economic group by 2060.

So what and how will a wealthier, more urban, and presumably, more globalised Africa eat in the decades ahead?

If Africa follows the global patterns set by regions that have boosted incomes in recent decades, the answer is clear – more processed and packaged food.  And while careful attention must be paid to the prevention of over nutrition, epitomized in the jarring obesity epidemic in developed countries, these new food habits will open windows of opportunity for local Small and Medium-sized Agricultural Enterprises (SMAEs) – if they can keep up with demands of a more value-oriented consumer base.

However, SMAEs will have to radically improve their packaging to expand the marketability of their products and reduce food losses – a third of food produced in Sub Saharan Africa is either lost or wasted each year. Attractive food packaging will have to be in the toolbox of local SMAEs, if they are to reclaim a sizeable market share from the grip of often better packaged foreign food products now dominating Africa’s urban food markets.

Appropriate food packaging, whether used to prevent the food losses that plague Sub Saharan Africa’s agro-industries, or as a marketing tool to entice a new cadre of consumers, will be essential in making SMAEs more competitive and sustainable.

FAO, ITC and IMA team up to assess the packaging-related challenges faced by African SMAEs

In 2017, FAO and the International Trade Centre, funded by Italian packaging machinery company, Industria Macchine Automatiche (IMA), investigated the food packaging challenges facing Sub Saharan African SMAEs. Within the context of a joint project, the team from the three agencies assessed the food packaging needs of these small and medium-sized businesses during a broad study across the continent.

Some of the major challenges identified by the team include the limited availability of packaging materials and equipment across the continent.Often when packaging materials are available, Sub Saharan Africa’s SMAEs are challenged by their poor quality and/or high cost. Furthermore, there is limited knowledge of packaging technologies, product standards and certification across the region and generally, little investment in packaging systems. FAO also found that bans on plastic packaging in some countries have been implemented without alternative sources of food packaging being made available for SMAEs, and without strategies in place to identify alternatives.

When access to packaging is low, SMAEs are unable to add significant value to their products. Within this context, investments in processing are particularly vulnerable to a range of external agents such as insects, rodents and bad weather, thereby compromising their quality and shelf-life.

Furthermore, processed food may spoil at a faster rate after transformations such as milling. Without suitable packaging, most SMAEs risk substantial losses, and often, financial ruin.

Based on the findings of the FAO/ITC assessment, feasibility studies will be conducted in several countries to identify a sustainable business model for the establishment of national packaging centres targeted to small and medium agro-enterprise sector. The report of the assessment will be published in forthcoming weeks.

Training SMAE actors

FAO and ITC trained 42 SMAE actors from English and French-speaking Sub Saharan countries on appropriate packaging in November and December, 2017 in an effort to  build the capacity of SMAEs to comply with changing consumer and market demands and supply chain requirements. The trainees will potentially support hundreds of SMAEs on packaging-related issues at the community level.

Workshops took place in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire. Given their important role in processing and packaging activities, approximately half of the trainees were women.  Since the conclusion of the ITC-FAO facilitated training, trainees have passed on their packaging knowledge in their networks, hosting workshops of their own in countries like Mali and Cameroon.

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