How a Global Alliance for Inclusive and Nutritious Food Processing Improves Food Safety
In 2016, Winfred "Winnie" Wandimi formally registered a small dairy business as a corporation — Wimssy Fresh Dairy, based in Kirigiti, Kenya. It was a proud moment for her. She had established the business eight years earlier and worked tirelessly to grow her sales and hire employees. But she soon faced a growing and nearly invisible challenge: food safety.
Food processors across Africa battle microbes, such as bacteria and parasites, which can wreak outsized havoc on public health. Every year, contaminated foods contribute to more than 600 million cases of foodborne diseases (FBDs) worldwide, causing 425,000 deaths. Children under 5 suffer the most, with 125,000 dying annually due to harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses, toxins and chemicals in their food.
Africa bears the highest reported burden of FBD. In 2016, for instance, more than 50% of annual global deaths due to salmonella, the top FBD risk in Africa, were reported on the continent.
Without stricter food safety and quality practices, the prevalence of foodborne illnesses and diseases will continue to rise. By 2050, 5 million people per year could die due to industrial food production factors — twice the current number of people killed as a result of obesity and four times the number of people killed in road traffic crashes worldwide.
While regulators and public health agencies are critical to improving food safety, the private sector has a vital and often underappreciated role to play. The Alliance for Inclusive and Nutritious Food Processing (AINFP) — a partnership between USAID, TechnoServe and Partners in Food Solutions (PFS) that aims to create a more competitive food-processing sector in Africa — shows how partnerships with local food processing businesses can help them improve food safety, even amid an unprecedented pandemic.
The most urgent food safety issues in 2021
Unsafe food handling processes and weak food safety infrastructure systems are among the biggest culprits behind Africa’s food safety problem. Many food aggregators and processors in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) lack basic knowledge about food safety standards like good hygienic practices (GHP) and good manufacturing practices (GMP). Additionally, the practice of hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) — a management system for identifying and controlling potential risks to food safety — is not consistently carried out.
Many processors also sometimes lack safety infrastructure, like clean water supplies, refrigeration equipment and a consistent electrical supply. Transportation challenges can also threaten food safety, with long transit times causing food to spoil or become contaminated.
AINFP is addressing these key challenges by implementing proven solutions at each step of the food chain to improve safety and quality; specifically, with food processors through value-add activities and encouraging an enabling environment, e.g., HACCP identifies critical control points in the manufacturing process and steps at which hazards can be prevented, eliminated or reduced to acceptable levels. Examples of critical control points might include cooking, cooling, reheating and holding. Ensuring proper standard operating procedures are applied at these critical points ensures safety through the process to the final end product, reduces wastage and danger of sales returns and saves costs. The enabling environment at the factory level ensures that safety becomes part of the corporate culture and is not only a response to inspection.
For example, AINFP works with certain food processors to ensure that crops are properly aggregated, sorted, classified, stored and transported. This helps create stronger linkages between producers and processors to ensure a more consistent supply of high-quality and safe raw material for food products via smallholder aggregator models and lead firms. TechnoServe and its partners also support food processors to adopt better food safety and quality practices, from food handling to product packaging. AINFP also ensures that capable indirect support actors, such as laboratories or training institutes, are part of the process. For example, training institutions are involved in sector-wide trainings (SWT) either as trainers or participants. TechnoServe frequently assists processors in setting up basic internal lab facilities to ensure product testing and also bolsters capacity building of government or private labs.
How TechnoServe projects are solving the most urgent food safety issues of 2021
The implementation of these solutions involves several interventions. For example, the program works with PFS to transfer technology and know-how to food processors in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi. TechnoServe, in partnership with PFS, provides customized technical assistance (CTA) to individual food processors and delivers sector-wide trainings to the broader food-processing ecosystem in the five targeted countries. They also partner with Initiative for Smallholder Finance (ISF) Advisors on the access to finance component so that processors can invest in critical food safety infrastructure. Through implementation partner ISF Advisors, AINFP works with financial institutions to broaden financing options for food processors in need of investment finance and operating capital.
For Winnie Wandimi, these activities have made the greatest impact on her business.
"The technical advice and support has been tremendous, and it’s ongoing. I can pick up my phone and call any of [my TechnoServe advisors] with a question or crisis and they will answer me. Always ready to help," she reports. "The HACCP training ensured that we put out safe products. They linked me to donors and financiers who were able to purchase machinery and have the capacity to produce long-life milk. They also helped with the strategic plan. We didn't have one in place until AINFP guys came along. Their support has been outstanding, and I am forever grateful."
The challenges of COVID-19
COVID-19 has made it more difficult to ensure food safety because food processors, the main source of supply of nutritious foods, have faced multiple challenges across the workforce, supply chains, finance, and marketing and distribution. (See TechnoServe’s COVID-19 report for more information on how the pandemic affected food processing in Africa.)
Smaller agroprocessors face particular challenges. With limited capital, they are less able to pre-stock raw materials and ingredients, to respond to changing consumer demand or to diversify production to meet emerging opportunities. They often lack reliable health information or the capacity to take practical steps to protect their staff. And during the pandemic, many struggled to analyze the impact of the virus on their operations and to make rational financial and business decisions in response.
Wandimi was among those who initially struggled to adapt their businesses. "Once COVID hit, we saw an immediate change in our customer behavior," she recalls. "They no longer wanted to purchase fresh milk; they opted to be buying long-lasting products to avoid going to the shops constantly."
Her business had to pivot quickly to respond to shifting consumer demand. She worked closely with the TechnoServe team to develop the company’s own long-life milk products, released them into the market and held her breath. "The reception from our consumers was amazing," she recounts. "We are selling a lot of it now."
Wandimi has also shifted the business' approach to hygiene — a change that will outlast the pandemic and improve her company’s food safety practices further. "We became even more strict when it came to the personal hygiene of our staff members," she says. "The staff worked in shifts, and we implemented social distancing.... There was regular sanitization and fumigation of the factory and its environs."
Future impacts for stakeholders in the sector
Since 2018, AINFP has helped 79 companies increase their sales and produce more than 46,000 mega tons (MT) of safe, nutritious food for consumers in Africa. The project has generated $3.8 million in sales for farmers and food processors, increased the supply of nutritious food for base-of-the-pyramid consumers by 46,375 MT and facilitated over $3 million in new financing for the value chain. Under AINFP, 653 individuals (234 of whom were women) had attended food safety SWT by the end of March.
Wandimi is happy to be among those helped. When asked about her plans for the coming years, she dreams out loud about new factory equipment, solar panels, a water tower and buying milk from 1,000 farmers — up from the 300 who currently supply the dairy. "I hope to have our products be available throughout the country and possibly the East African region."