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Food Security and Food Safety in Africa Must Go Hand in Hand

Monica Musonda, CEO, Java Foods, and Board Member, Partners in Food Solutions (PFS)

Fortified flour bag. Credit: Partners in Food Solutions

LUSAKA, Zambia, Apr 12 2024 (IPS) - Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has restricted international exports and sent food costs soaring – particularly for vulnerable populations still experiencing shocks from the pandemic and who can least afford to pay more to feed their families. Two years on, global food supply chains are still just as susceptible to serious disruptions caused by war, disease, and climate change. Those inevitable disruptions are leaving those on the African continent particularly vulnerable.

Ensuring people have access to safe and nutritious food at an affordable price helps prevent malnutrition, boosts human capital, and improves health outcomes by decreasing susceptibility to a wide range of diseases. But none of this is possible if the local food supply is not safe for people to eat. Food security and food safety must go hand in hand, yet across Africa this remains a challenge. The continent has some of the highest rates of foodborne illness in the world. Globally, nearly half a million people die each year because of something they ate.

Food scares are not only harmful for anyone who eats contaminated food, but also erodes trust of consumers in the products they buy for their families. To ensure a secure food supply, locally produced food must not only be readily available but also be safe for consumers to eat, meeting the same high-quality standards seen in imports.

But small and medium-sized companies in Africa struggle to meet international food safety standards, which often go above what is required on a national level. The process can be complicated, expensive, and time consuming, yet I believe it is vital for African food companies to seek these certifications to build consumer confidence and strengthen continental food security.

I started Java Foods, a food company based in Lusaka, Zambia, out of the recognition that Africa imports large quantities of food, despite the fact that the continent is able to grow a diversity of crops. Our company focuses on using locally grown raw materials in our products, which we’ve designed specifically for the changing tastes of the youthful Zambian population.

One of our most successful products are packaged instant noodles, under the brand name eeZee, which are made with locally grown wheat fortified with 17 micronutrients, including iron and zinc. Although we produce processed foods, we want to ensure the highest nutritional value possible for our consumers who seek accessible and affordable food options.

Maintaining high-quality food safety standards is the right thing to do for the consumer, and it has been the right thing to do for Java Foods – even if it has required significant investments in our facility and in our people.

Food safety certification has to be paid for. The different sets of standards are run by private companies, which require food producers to buy the certification they want to implement and renew the certification every couple of years. Audits to ensure compliance are also costly.

With technical assistance from Partners in Food Solutions, a nonprofit which links African food producers with corporate volunteers from U.S.-based food companies, Java Foods was able to receive support in redesigning our plant to ensure we’ll be compliant with international food safety standards. Our employees benefited from skills transfer using online conferencing tools that dramatically increased their professional skills and contributions to our team.

In addition to making changes to our factory floor plan, we also began a meticulous documentation process to create the records necessary to demonstrate that we were following the same standards to a T on every single batch of instant noodles. Our staff are central to getting this right, so Java Foods has created a culture where our employees understand why we take these extra steps, and take pride in ensuring our compliance.

It is possible for other companies to follow in Java’s footsteps. There are several ways we can improve the food safety certification system to mutually benefit consumers, food processors, and regulating authorities.

In addition to better awareness of the existence of food safety standards and why companies should seek such certification to benefit their consumers, there needs to be more coordination on a regional and global level. Java Foods exports our products to neighboring countries, but each can require different steps to comply with their local regulations. Exporting our noodles to Zimbabwe, for example, requires us to complete an extra step not required elsewhere.

This means we shoulder extra expenses to expand our market, which cannot be passed along to the consumer because we make a low-cost product. Differing food safety standards become a trade barrier not only restricting the growth of businesses in Africa, but restricting food security as strengthening regional supply chains remains hampered by cumbersome regulations.

Local governments need more support to strengthen their food safety quality control capacity. This includes the facilities they provide for testing for food contaminants such as aflatoxins, from a mold that can develop on some crops when they aren’t stored properly.

We also need better information sharing and data availability. Having information readily available online when our staff encounter an issue would save time and resources.

Although it was laborious, Java Foods has immensely benefited from the decision to seek international food safety certification. The standards allow us to expand the market for our products, and we must ensure other companies can easily join us to strengthen Africa’s food security.

Monica Musonda is the CEO of Java Foods, a food manufacturing company in Lusaka, Zambia. She serves on the board of Partners in Food Solutions, a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono consulting services to African food processors.

IPS UN Bureau


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