Published on 10 Aug 2022

African superfoods garnering international attention

As health awareness grows so does the demand for fonio, teff, and other traditional grains

By Jaco Maritz

Fonio – a gluten-free grain with many nutritional benefits – has been cultivated as a subsistence crop in West Africa for thousands of years. It is drought-resistant, can grow without the support of fertiliser and restores organic matter in fallow soil. Despite the crop’s long history in the region, it is not fully commercialised.

Thanks to fonio’s nutritional profile, demand has been growing in regions such as the US and European Union (EU). One business tapping into rising demand for fonio is US-based food company Yolélé. It started by selling bags of fonio – sourced from smallholder farmers in West Africa – at a single New York City store in 2017. Currently, its fonio products are available at over 2,000 grocery outlets across the US, including Whole Foods and Target. It also supplies business-to-business customers in the food service industry.

In 2021, Yolélé signed an agreement with Mali-based agribusiness company Mali Shi to establish a new venture, West African Ancient Grains, which plans to process thousands of tonnes of fonio in Mali. “West African Ancient Grains will contract directly with smallholder organisations to grow fonio paddy. We will buy that paddy and turn it into fonio and fonio flour to sell to industrial customers. Those customers will use our output to make all sorts of grain-based foods,” explained Pierre Thiam, founder of Yolélé.

Ghanaian company AMAATI Group has also recognised the potential of fonio. It started by contracting smallholder farmers to grow fonio on abandoned farmland in northern Ghana. After initial difficulties in selling raw fonio, it added a processing plant to produce packaged fonio cereal and flour ready for consumption by end-users.

AMAATI’s products, branded as DIM Fonio, are sold nationwide in over 190 outlets and it has customers in the hospitality industry. The company exports to Italy, the Netherlands, France, the US and Canada. About 70% of production is for the local market, while 30% is exported.

Growing demand thanks to global health awareness

Fonio is just one of the products in a category known as superfoods, defined by Collins dictionary as “food that contains many vitamins and other substances that are considered to be very good for your health”.

As global consumers become more aware of their health, a trend accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, several African producers are ramping up production of crops suited for local cultivation, like moringa and chia seeds. Superfoods native to the continent – such as fonio, vitamin-C-rich baobab fruit and Ethiopian gluten-free grain teff – are also attracting increasing attention.

Baobab powder, processed from the fruit of the baobab tree, has nearly four times more vitamin C than oranges and a high antioxidant rating. The powder also contains several key minerals like potassium and magnesium. Zimbabwe-based entrepreneur Gus Le Breton was instrumental in securing approval for baobab powder in the EU market in 2008. His company B’Ayoba processes baobab into powder and seed oil for export.

Nigerian commodities processor and trader AgroEknor built its business around the export of the hibiscus plant, a flower currently in high demand for processing into tea as well as an ingredient in various wellness products in its powdered form. “There is a market demand we cannot meet; we have a supply deficit. Hibiscus has been identified as an organic antioxidant and, in the past year especially, with the impact of Covid-19 and people becoming more health-conscious, we have had multinationals reaching out to us to supply,” said founding director Timi Oke.

Some academics and policymakers have suggested African countries should boost the cultivation of crops such as fonio and teff, to reduce dependence on imported wheat, rice and maize. The prices of wheat and maize have seen big fluctuations in recent months, partly owing to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

African superfoods for consumers in Germany

German agribusiness company Amatheon Agri is increasing its production of superfoods in Africa. Amatheon has farms in Uganda and Zambia where it cultivates crops for bulk export and as inputs for its processed products.

Its Zambian unit last year inaugurated new processing factories for spices and superfoods at its farm in the Mumbwa District. At the facility, chilli and superfoods cultivated on Amatheon’s land and by surrounding smallholder farmers are cleaned, processed and packed for the export market.

Amatheon started out producing staple crops – such as maize, wheat and soya – in sub-Saharan Africa more than a decade ago. Some years later, it noticed the potential for organic and natural foods and became one of the pioneers of superfood production in Zambia. It began supplying chia seeds and quinoa to European markets in 2019.

In 2021, Amatheon launched the all-natural food brand ZUVA – made from quinoa, chia and teff grown in Africa – that is sold to consumers in Germany. “We looked at the markets worldwide and saw superfoods were receiving a lot of attention, especially gluten-free products like quinoa and chia. These are usually grown in South America but we believed there was no reason why we could not cultivate them in Africa. We did some tests in Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe and began with large-scale production in Zambia,” said Amatheon CEO Carl Heinrich Bruhn in an earlier interview.

Amatheon’s target market for its superfood products is people living a lifestyle of health and sustainability. “This is a growing segment worldwide, particularly in megacities; for example, it is spreading on the west coast of the US in California as well as in Australia,” he added.

Victoria Cavanagh, director of international sales and marketing at Amatheon, noted that Africa is home to several crops that can benefit from the health and wellness trend: “Baobab and moringa are probably the most known superfoods from Africa that have been receiving some attention. Teff and fonio also seem to be growing in recognition and, lately, I have seen hibiscus gain a lot of visibility.”

Moringa gaining traction

Zambia-based farmers Evan and Bernice Kilburn came across moringa back in 2012. The couple did some research and, wowed by its nutritional benefits, started growing the crop on some of the available land on their farm. The Zambian climate lends itself to the cultivation of moringa, a hardy tree that prefers somewhat hot and dry conditions.

Today, the venture, called Moringa Initiative, produces branded moringa seed oil, tea, powder and capsules, which are sold in supermarkets and pharmacies in Zambia and South Africa as well as exported. After harvest, the moringa is dried at a specific temperature for a precise time to get the nutrients at the correct level. The dried leaves then go through various processes, depending on the final product, before it is packaged and distributed. In Zambia, its range of teas is the most popular, while in South Africa, the capsules and 100g bags of pure moringa powder are the bestsellers.

Although Moringa Initiative’s objective was always the creation of a retail brand, it has found strong traction in the wholesale market, which now accounts for the bulk of its revenue. “Putting a product into retail does come with significant costs: packaging, distribution, advertising and marketing. It helped once we shifted to wholesale where these costs are lower and the income could supplement spend on the retail end … The Zambian and South African markets are only so big. We’ve now established good partnerships for wholesale in the US and EU,” explained director Lloyd Abernethy.

Further north in Uganda, businessman Teddy Ruge has tapped into the moringa opportunity through his outfit Raintree Farms. The company, which launched in 2012, grows moringa on its own land and also buys from small-scale farmers. Its main clients are nutritional supplement companies in the US and EU that use Raintree’s moringa powder to make pills, energy bars and smoothie mixes.

Raintree has also launched a consumer-focused moringa oil beauty brand called Qwezi Beauty. “The margins from exporting a commodity like [moringa] oil are very thin, but if you go several steps up in terms of value addition, you are immediately able to multiply your profitability by several factors. It also protects the business from the shocks of international export by multiplying the customer base infinitely,” Ruge explained.

Smallholder relationships critical to success

Many superfood producers in Africa source their produce from small-scale farmers. However, convincing these farmers to switch to a new crop or not sell to competitors come harvest time, is no mean feat. Smallholders typically also need support in terms of financing, agronomical training and inputs, such as seed and fertiliser.

When Nigeria-based hibiscus exporter AgroEknor commenced trading, it fulfilled its first orders with hibiscus sourced from middlemen. However, working through these aggregators gave it little control over pricing. To maintain control of its raw material costs and ensure supply security, AgroEknor’s first trial planting was with a small group of outgrowers – small-scale farmers under contract to supply the company – in Jigawa State in northern Nigeria. This outgrower scheme has since increased to a network of thousands of farmers who AgroEknor support with training and finance.

Amatheon Agri has both its own land and works with smallholder farmers in Zambia and Uganda. According to CEO Carl Heinrich Bruhn, this strategy has been a meaningful factor in the company’s growth to date. “One important contributor to our success is having our commercial farm in the middle of the outgrower farming community as a centre point or anchor. That is where we, ourselves, test and learn. We get the expertise to improve our operations and transfer it to the outgrower programme.”

Raintree Farms aims to provide financial stability to the smallholders it works with by paying farmers on a monthly basis for the moringa they are expected to supply over a year. “It gives farmers an important financial injection to assist in the possible transition from subsistence to commercial farming. It provides them with an alternative to the production of unpredictable seasonal crops to diversify their income,” Runge said.

To convince small-scale farmers to partner with it, agribusiness company Shares Uganda uses tactics such as demonstration farms, running radio advertisements and actively engaging with local leaders. But CEO Marck van Esch admits having a contract with a farmer still does not guarantee supply. “At the end of the season, if another party offers a higher price than the one we agreed prior to the season, they could sell to the highest bidder. We try to combat this by making sure our position in the area and community is strong.”

In Ghana, AMAATI Group provides its supplier smallholder farmers with training, seeds and ploughing services and presents itself as a willing buyer once the fonio crop is harvested. It buys as much as the farmers want to sell but most opt to keep some to feed their families.

Organic certification and traceability

Organic certification and traceability are becoming increasingly important themes for those seeking success in the superfood industry.

Moringa Initiative applied for its organic certification after the team attended a trade fair in the US in 2019 in search of export markets for its branded goods. “The main takeaway was that no one in the EU or US was interested unless our product was organically certified,” Abernethy added.

Raintree Farms’ Runge also found organic certification was critical if it wanted to grow its international clientele. He explained the certification involves an annual inspection, which it pays for on behalf of farmers. The company also provides its farmers with refresher training on organic requirements.

Importers are currently strongly focused on traceability – the recording of the product movement and steps within the production process – according to AgroEknor’s Timi Oke. “This means, as an exporter, you have to be involved in the entire value chain,” he said, sharing just one of the reasons they have become more engaged in farming.

End-consumers too are increasingly seeking the backstory of the products they consume. “When they are drinking moringa tea, they are interested in where it was grown and harvested and what the journey from sowing to shelf looked like,” Abernethy said.

Growth predictions

While accurate data on niche superfood crops are hard to come by, there seems to be general consensus the industry will grow considerably in the coming years. Research firm Technavio forecast the moringa products market will expand by US$2.85 billion between 2020 to 2025, progressing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 8% during the period. In 2020, Raintree Farms’ Ruge put the global market for moringa products at $7.1 billion; projected to grow to $10 billion by 2025.

Fonio only received official authorisation to be marketed as a food product in Europe in 2018. According to the Netherlands’ Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI), countries that offer the best potential for fonio exports include France, the Netherlands, UK, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. However, it cautions that sellers will have to invest in marketing as many consumers are not familiar with the product.

The baobab powder market in Western Europe is anticipated to grow by a CAGR of 6.3% in terms of value and 2.6% in terms of volume from 2019 to 2025. Le Breton says while Europe has traditionally been the largest buyer of baobab exports, there is growing demand from North America and Asia, particularly South Korea, Japan and Malaysia.

In Singapore, food company WhatIF Foods sources bambara nuts – a good source of protein, fibre, minerals, and vitamins such as iron, calcium, and magnesium – from Ghana to make noodles and plant-based milk. Singaporean Nature’s Superfoods sells everything from quinoa to chia seeds and was ranked 49th in The Straits Times’ list of the country’s fastest growing companies in 2021.

“The global wellness revolution – the shift from synthetic towards natural – is creating demand across the globe for the types of products we are producing: organic, natural, wild harvested. We’re only at the beginning of exploring all the opportunities we have in this nascent natural product sector,” B’Ayoba’s Le Breton said.

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