Trying out new foods is one of life’s simple pleasures. Cuisine immerses you in a culture, exposes you to new tastes and excites the imagination. The challenge is, the more we succeed, the less time we can afford to cook and experiment in our home kitchens. So as Africa’s emerging markets grow, domestic demand for ready-to-consume food products is quickly on the rise, thanks to rapid urbanization and an expanding middle class. As over-sized supermarkets pop up across the continent, however, their shelves are mostly being filled by imported processed foods.
This is a huge opportunity that only requires a small change in thinking. If most agriculture initiatives usually start with the farmers and move up the value chain, then agro-processing solutions must start in the marketplace, identify opportunities, and develop businesses that leverage local agricultural resources. When you consider that, for each job created in agro-processing, an additional 2.8 jobs are created in the wider economy, you realize the benefits go much further than cheaper groceries.
To get a taste for the available opportunities, consider the story of Randa Filfili, owner and CEO of Zena Exotic Fruits. When she learned that local farmers produced cashews for export, but did nothing with the fruit these trees produced, she saw an opportunity. Randa worked with a team of food technologists, marketers, and chefs to develop an all-natural cashew apple butter that tastes good, has a long shelf life and comes in attractive packaging.
Today, Zena Exotic Fruits has developed a full range of jams, jellies, sauces and juices from fresh, tropical fruits grown in Senegal and West Africa. The company has not only grown to serve supermarkets and hotels in Senegal, but has also built an export base which includes the United States, Europe and Japan. Through it all, Randa remains considerate of the social impact of her enterprise. Zena Fruits creates jobs for the hearing-impaired; donates 1 percent of its U.S. sales to educate disadvantaged youth in Senegal; and employs women as 95 percent of its staff. (For a video, click on the panel below or on this link: http://www.infodev.org/highlights/new-video-randa-filfili-zena-exotic-fruits.)
Randa’s success story was enabled by the technical assistance and expertise she received from a broad team with "the right mix" of skills. Finding that "right mix" is in a nutshell (or in this case, a cashew apple) what business incubators do. Over the past 19 years, infoDev, a global innovation and entrepreneurship program in the upcoming Trade and Competitiveness Global Practice, has built a network of hundreds of business incubators around the world.
The Agribusiness Innovation Program (AIP), which we will proudly present at this week’s International Food and Agribusiness Management Association (IFAMA) conference in South Africa, represents a new approach to advancing agro-processing by enabling innovative, growth-oriented entrepreneurs to scale. Like the conference organizers, we believe in "the talent factor," which Randa very much embodies: Talented agribusiness entrepreneurs only need a little help to get on the right growth trajectory.
To help us understand what support "agri-preneurs" need most, more than 600 stakeholders – 75 percent of them from the private sector – contributed during international consultations to developing the AIP approach. The result is a unique model that aims to catalyze local value addition and focus on growth-oriented SMEs with the potential to become market leaders. In order to actively build market linkages across the value chain, both forward into the global industry and backward to small-holder farmers, the AIP cultivates partnerships across the agribusiness ecosystem, both locally and internationally.
The local flavor is delivered through Agribusiness Innovation Centers that provide a menu of services, which includes market linkages, finance, technology, business services and networks. So, this would mean enabling a Baobab snack bar company to acquire the technology it needs to produce a consistent and high-quality product. A Kenyan barbeque sauce manufacturer would attain market knowledge to develop an international brand. A sunflower oil processor would earn the required capital needed to scale his business and gain market share.
Each AIC client receives services tailored to its needs. The key is finding that "right mix" of knowledge and expertise to enable their existing small or medium-size enterprise to realize its potential.
Beyond the AICs, the Agribusiness Innovation Program will share their recipe on a broader scale, so that others, both public and private actors, might cook up agri-business programs in their own communities. Although the AIP has broad relevance to a range of countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America, infoDev will focus on Africa first. Implementation has started in Nepal and Tanzania, and will be closely followed by Senegal, Mozambique and Ethiopia.
Common impediments to the growth of the agro-processing industry – proper infrastructure, electricity, water, etc. – remain as key challenges in many developing economies. However, their comparative advantage in agricultural commodities can be converted into competitive agro-processing industries. With it, a new generation of agri-preneurs will create new jobs, increase inclusion and give the world a taste of unique culinary traditions, exotic fruits and innovative food products. When they do, we hope you'll enjoy every last bite.