Africa Business Communities

[Column] Byron Mudhune: Looming danger in Africa’s food imports

Addressing Africa’s food import and consumption has suffered from extreme mood swings with the pendulum moving from episodes of pessimism to euphoria.

Only recently, we were reminded of the need for food security largely driven by rapid population growth, rural –urban migration, climate change and weak food supply chain infrastructure. In fact, Kenya has prioritized food security as one of its big four agenda.

While those of us who know Africa better, one must admit that this views exposes the other side of the story that is still largely ignored – food safety and standards.

As investors in integrated agribusiness across Africa, I have observed first-hand both the magnitude and impact of growing food import and consumption. The pendulum has now swung our way with recent reports across the continent.

Study and data focused on Africa food import and consumption is not always readily available, but what exists is alarming. A recent study in both Uganda and Tanzania revealed that more than half of the products sold on the Ugandan and Tanzania markets are substandard, without indicating what percentage of the products is food related. In Nigeria there is milk powder with no animal protein.

In Kenya there is contaminated imported sugar, substandard fertilizer and substandard maize imports and vegetable oil made of recycled oil unfit for human consumption. In Ghana, the palm oil is laced with a food coloring called Sudan IV which is carcinogenic.  For years across the continent, from East to West, electric transformer oil has been used for frying foodstuff sold to millions of unsuspecting consumers.

Transformer oil contains highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).  Early this year, African countries recalled some processed meats from South Africa after the deaths of 180 people there from contaminated food. Across the continent, in most countries, fertilizers are imported with very little regard to rigorous quality check.

Given that most of the fertilizers imported directly feed into the food eco-system that drives daily dietary needs of millions of people, they are likely contributing to the rising levels of under nutrition and cancer on the continent impacting negatively on the hugely under-funded health sector.

In my view a number of issues come at play. First, the increasing complexity of food systems, ingredients with long supply chains and varying levels of scrutiny and standards from one country to another, makes it very difficult to trace the origins of food products we consume.

Second, local manufacturers face increased competition from cheaper imports,  which often have deliberate lower standards for African destinations, and so they may use inferior or even unregulated ingredients in their products to reduce their production costs and make healthy profits.

Third, weak and outdated regulatory standards, systems and tracking mechanisms create loop holes in which unscrupulous and corrupt business people thrive.

What needs to be done?

African governments must set high regulatory standards for food content and labeling, track and prevent counterfeit imported and local produced food.

The African Union should be the designated champion and could consider exploring a collaborative arrangement with food manufacturers, Agribusinesses, industry associations and key media houses across the continent to spearhead change.

One such change initiative should be modeled around creating an ethical and sustainable system for trade in food related products – a sort of an umbrella organization whose mission would be set the standards, support, inspect and certify all players and harmonize the message across the movement.

Eventually, the umbrella organization would manage an ethical and sustainable labeling visibility mark, facilitating cross-border African trade and simplifying export procedures and standards across the continent. 

 The ethical and sustainable labeling visibility mark can initially be piloted for key major Africa’s food imports and locally produced food and gradually scaled to cover other major tradable products across the continent.

A strong local standard will also act to incentivize and stimulate the growth of contract manufacturing on African continent especially for agro related industries consequently boosting the job creation agenda and growth of export business.

Emerging innovations

Turning its attention to the food based ecosystem, the block chain tech shows a lot of promise in food safety and standards. It will counter the traditional method of heavy reliance on self-reporting and labeling claims that are not easy to track and trace.

Block chain alone thus has the unique technological advantage in that it provides incorruptible data that is based not on agendas but on network-wide verifiable facts. It does this in a decentralized environment that is not limited to the data-supporting capabilities of any one central organization or African country.

Governments however will have to play a pivotal role in creating an enabling environment for such new business models and investment to thrive.

But much more will still have to be done

The cost of prevention is much lower than that of inaction, and everyone has a critical role to play. Signing to WHO global food standards for safe food and leaving the responsibility squarely in the hands of national standards authorities is clearly not enough.

 Indeed, only by exercising our collective political will as African countries and commitment to the health, food security, and economic development of Africa can we halt the impending danger.

We do not yet know the full economic or health impacts of our food import, consumption and its related challenges, but it seems certain that if left unchecked, this trend will exacerbate the food security and health challenges facing many countries in Africa.

From investors perspective, it could derail efforts to build and invest in strong, vibrant and scalable integrated agribusiness systems.

Byron Mudhune is a Cofounder and Chairman of MafAfrique, a Romania based advisory and fund management


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