“Hmm, good luck with that”. This was the vote of confidence I received from industry colleagues when I initially discussed our plans to move forward with creating an African specialty foods program. I had the privilege of enjoying countless tales about poor packaging, low fulfillment rates and a non-existent quality assurance standard. Admittedly, this had me somewhat concerned, but we decided nevertheless that this would be a worth wile endeavor. After all, what else could we do? Our company, Talier Trading Group, is a specialty food development company who focuses on creating export opportunities for international food manufacturers. African foods were a non-existent category, and one which we saw as having huge potential. Of course, we certainly recognized the economic reality in many parts of Africa, so there was an element of a feel-good factor. But, as a business owner, I need to see the tangible viability of a project before moving forward. Despite the words of caution and uncertainty, Talier Trading Group effectively began working on an African specialty foods program in the summer of 2006. Since then, I have been exhausted and amazed at the results produced. In Africa, where the overwhelming majority of the population works in agriculture, it’s logical to think that specialty food exports represent a true opportunity for a people who want nothing more than that opportunity. The process would prove challenging and rewarding and worth every second of effort. For those who do not yet know, allow me to explain our experiences, and why I feel that now is truly Africa’s moment to shine.
The Need for Education on Both Sides
It was obvious early on that developing and marketing African specialty food would require an extended range of considerations well outside of the norm. The truth is, that Africa has never received a lot of positive press or attention here in the United States. What little media attention Africa does receive typically focuses on famine, civil wars or post-election violence. In elementary schools, African studies are limited to the pharaohs of Egypt and a brief mention of the apartheid struggle. Geographically, Africa is even more of a mystery, with a 1999 survey indicating that many Americans considered Africa to be one country unto itself. This didn’t make our job any easier. Convincing American consumers that France, Thailand or Mexico has great cuisine is one thing; while preaching about the diversity and culinary delights found in Africa is quite another. “Where is that?”, was a common question. “They have food there”, was another. With these facts in place, it was easy to see that education needed to be a critical part of our overall objective in creating the demand for African specialty foods. On the other side, there was a strong need to educate African manufacturers, exporters and government officials about why and how they should approach the US market. For the processors, the US specialty food industry can seem daunting and confusing, to say the very least. Packaging and nutritional requirements, pricing structures, and product positioning are but a few of the major concerns initially expressed by African manufacturers. With the markets in Europe being so close, many were not convinced that the US market was a viable project. Finally, African government officials needed to be convinced that investing in the infrastructure, micro-financing and agricultural inputs in an effort to market their “culinary culture” was money well spent. Fortunately, the supply and demand ratio was there, and all parties involved recognized the win-win situation that we were presented with. With increased education, growers, manufacturers, buyers and consumers have and will continue to embrace the idea of Africa as a specialty food exporter and as a prominent region of the world commanding respect and admiration.
Anxious Consumers Turn to Africa:
Africa is indeed the “last frontier” for the specialty food industry in the United States. American consumers have been enjoying a global shopping experience for years. In any supermarket, in any town in America, consumers can find the shelves well-stocked with food products from around the world. While most countries in Europe, Asia and South America have been well-represented, Africa has remained virtually obsolete. The variety and availability of specialty food products in the United States is tremendous, and consumers love it. The specialty food industry here in America is valued at over $70,000,000,000; easily the largest in the world. But what happened to African products? Certainly there is more to this magnificent continent than a fifty-pound bag of yam flour. Well, thankfully there is! With a fledgling US economy and an increasingly painful European exchange rate, the doors were wide open for emerging markets to step in with new products of perceived value. Our buyers from retail supermarket chains across the country were begging for new products, and for new categories. Major supermarket chains like Kroger, Shaw’s, Food Emporium, Meijer, Whole Foods and many more were intrigued with the idea of promoting a category as new and as innovative as African specialty foods. As for American consumers, they love new products. They love the exciting packaging, the natural approach to food production and the diversity of cultural experimentation from trying new cuisines. More importantly, American consumers love the idea of Africa. For most, Africa is a land of mystery and excitement. Americans love to see underdog success stories, and the idea that Africa, with its well-documented economic difficulties, would be mounting a challenge to enter into the competitive US specialty food market…now that’s a story worth reading. A nation stood by and watched with great anticipation to see whether or not Africa had what it took, or would they fall back into the poverty cycle and aid packages that plague the American media.
African Manufacturers Rise to the Challenge:
With the interest of industry leaders and consumers heightened, the lingering question of “whether or not African manufacturers would be able to meet the demand” needed an answer. The US specialty food market, as discussed, is one of the most complex and unforgiving consumer sectors in the world, with a long list of requirements that must be adhered to. After years of tireless efforts, I’m happy to report that not only did African manufacturers meet expectations, but they surpassed them ten times over. They worked long and hard, harnessing expert advise from countless support mechanisms, to create unique products in beautiful packaging. They have created business models to streamline their operations into a cohesive, cost-effective process which employs the most philanthropic practices. Companies like The Highland Tea Company, Honey Care Africa and Elephant Pepper have created viable business plans with a strong social agenda behind them. Artisan companies like Verlaque Fine Foods, The Original Rooibos Company and Zena Exotic Fruits have scaled-up production capacities without loosing one shred of their uniqueness and originality. Finally, larger organizations like Nando’s and Berfin (Something South African/Mrs. Ball’s) have led the way in supporting and mentoring the hopes of an entire continent of eager manufacturers. “This came from Africa”? I’ve heard this question a thousand times in sales meetings, and I’m the first to admit that it always puts a smile on my face. “Yes”, I say, “this gorgeous product, with its attractive pricing and aggressive promotional schedule came from Africa”. For both buyers and consumers, it’s not enough to have a good story. Whether or not a product supports an entire village, or saves elephant populations or buys medicated bed nets is irrelevant to a buyer whose main concern is shelf appeal and gross profit margin. Today’s African specialty food manufacturers realize this, and they have been tremendously successful in developing competitive products with a social platform. They are social entrepreneurs in the truest sense of the phrase, and their efforts have been embraced by supermarket chains across the United States. I remain humbled and proud of their accomplishments over the past few years, and I realize that they have laid the groundwork for many more generations of African specialty food manufacturers to come.
Overwhelming Support & Assistance:
As the CEO of a mid-sized specialty food organization, I’m well aware of the challenges and restrictions we face when developing new programs. While our intentions are good, we do not always have the resources necessary to accomplish our desired goals alone. No example of this could ring truer than in Africa. To make this African specialty food program successful, we knew we needed on-the-ground support, financial resources and powerful friends. While I attribute much of the success of the African specialty foods program to our pioneering manufacturers, I would certainly give equal billing to the countless organizations that have focused their attention on promoting Africa’s well being. Groups like USAID, The International Executive Services Corp, Carana Corporation, Bearing Point, SAIBL, The Corporate Council for Africa, The United Nations Development Programme and Dr. Jeffrey Sachs’ Millennium Villages Project have all provided tremendous initiatives with one concept in mind…give Africa a chance. Well, I would say they’ve taken that chance and ran with it. This level of support is new for us in the specialty food industry. Typically, support comes in the form of one trade representative at the local consulate who is generally unwilling or unable to offer much assistance. These organizations, and the countless others not mentioned, deserve all the praise and admiration that could be offered, and I remain inspired by their continuous drive to promote Africa’s future.
Next Steps for African Specialty Foods:
It has been, and will continue to be, a tremendous journey for Talier Trading Group and myself personally to be part of the development and growth of the African specialty food industry. While much has been done, I feel that it’s important to learn from our experiences and continue pushing forward with this viable concept. Specifically, there are three areas which I feel need additional emphasis. First, we must continue to define what products can and should be coming out of the various countries in Africa. Manufacturers must continue to embrace the concept of marketing their distinctive cultures and unique cuisines to the world. Choma Sauce from East Africa or Jollof Rice Mix from West Africa are two cultural product ideas that would be well-received in the US markets. Second, we must continue to petition for increased attention to regions of Africa still in need of a presence on the global marketplace. Countries like Mali, Senegal, Rwanda and Ethiopia are overflowing with potential, and need simply additional inputs and attention. Can you imagine a range of baking products from Mali? I can, and I know hundreds of producers who can make that happen. Third and finally, we need to continue to push the positive image of Africa. Africa’s image is continuing to change at a ferocious pace, and all in the right direction. Organizations like The Africa Channel, Africa News, International Trade Promotions, South African Airlines and The African Travel Association continue to be instrumental in promoting the good name of Africa. With such strong links between tourism and specialty food, it’s easy to see why these organizations are so critical in the continued growth of African specialty foods.