– As a central pillar of African diets for thousands of years, millet has a prized position as one of the continent’s most important crops.
And with the onset of climate change, millet offers valuable security to the continent’s smallholder farmers due to the crop’s tolerance for dry soils.
Yet, the rise of an increasingly affluent urban middle class across Africa is threatening to shift diets away from traditional staples like millet in favor of higher-value and more convenient processed foods often sourced from outside the continent.
However, Africa’s homegrown processing industry can increasingly deliver more sophisticated products, turning unprocessed millet into nutritious ready-to-eat meals such as rice-like products, porridges, and more. This is a win-win for farmers and consumers alike.
Africa’s emerging agrifood processing industry clearly offers a major opportunity to capitalize on the growing demand for processed foods which, to date, has been met in large part by imported products.
Growing this sector can provide valuable opportunities for African livelihoods and economies across the region, all the while reducing the continent’s food import bill, which stands at roughly USD 35 billion a year.
The recently released Regional Strategic Analysis and Knowledge Support System (ReSAKSS) Annual Trends and Outlook Report (ATOR) shows that Africa’s agrifood processing sector is the essential link in connecting the continent’s smallholder farmers to growing urban markets with changing preferences.
Still, the sector as it exists today is just the tip of the iceberg, and data from across the continent highlights its enormous untapped potential, particularly in terms of the long-cultivated staples.
For instance, the rise of the millet processing sector in Senegal has reversed declining consumption trends due to growing urban populations and their needs for quicker and more convenient staples.
The share of millet has risen to close to 30 percent of the cereal consumption of high-income earners in Senegal, roughly the same as imported rice.
The introduction of more sophisticated millet products has also opened up new market opportunities for smallholder producers, which, alongside rising demand, is boosting the prices they can expect to receive in markets.
This means not only greater economic growth for national economies, but greater spending power and more resilient livelihoods for Africa’s small-scale producers, too.
Another interesting case study is the tomato, the fourth most economically valuable food crop produced in low- and middle-income countries. Fresh tomato is often more accessible to small-scale processors than larger plants, leaving significant potential to develop greater value products.
As a result, the rise of Africa’s processing sector is introducing new opportunities for tomato production by helping to add value and reduce post-harvest losses, stabilizing supplies for consumers throughout the year, while ensuring steady revenue streams for producers.
Meanwhile, some African countries are already seizing on the vast opportunities offered by their processing sectors to deliver a double win for economies and livelihoods.
Roughly 68 percent of Tanzania’s manufacturing exports, for instance, are agri-processed and resource-intensive goods, such as bottled juices, cooking oils, and packaged flours. A large majority of these goods are also being shipped to other African countries, demonstrating how greater agri-food processing capacity on the continent can meet African demand with African processed products.
This not only replaces demand for intercontinental imports, but equally ensures the benefits of processing for producers and consumers remain in Africa to deliver economic growth for future generations.
The growth of Africa’s agrifood processing sector clearly offers sustainable income-generating opportunities for the continent’s smallholder farmers through higher-value products that appeal to changing urban markets.
It also offers many prospects for jobs creation for the continent’s growing youth population – the fastest growing in the world.
With African food tastes and dietary preferences evolving, so too must its agrifood industry if it wishes to stay competitive, successful, and sustainable, delivering growth and improved livelihoods for millions.
Unlocking the potential of the continent’s processing sector, in particular, offers a clear path forward to achieving this goal.
Chakib Jenane joined the World Bank Group in 2014 and is currently Practice Manager for the Agriculture and Food Practice covering West and Central Africa.