Q&A: Strengthening Food Processors in Malawi

Henry Gaga is a Food Technology Specialist with TechnoServe in Malawi and shares his insight into food processing in Malawi.

Henry Gaga, Food technology specialist for TechnoServe
Henry Gaga, Food Technology Specialist for TechnoServe. (Partners in Food Solutions)

Henry Gaga is a Food Technology Specialist with TechnoServe in Malawi. In that role, Henry works with the African Alliance for Improved Food Processing, a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development that TechnoServe is implementing in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia in partnership with Partners in Food Solutions (a nonprofit created by General Mills, with core members Cargill and DSM). Henry translates the needs of small and medium-sized food processors in Malawi, and identifies where PFS volunteers can assist them to improve operations. This work has identified the potential for further development of the burgeoning processed food industry in Malawi.

Prior to his work with TechnoServe, Henry was an independent agro-processing and marketing consultant and a Lecturer on Food Science at the Bunda College of Agriculture in Malawi. Henry received an MSc in both Agricultural Economics and Food and Nutritional Science from Tuskegee University in Alabama.

Q: Describe the current state of the processed food industry in Malawi.

Henry Gaga: The processed food industry is still young and growing. There are only 35 food processors in Malawi. Small and medium-sized businesses represent the majority of food processors in Malawi.

These small and medium-sized food processors represent 4.5 percent of Malawi’s GDP. In terms of annual revenue to the Malawian economy, small and medium-sized food processors contribute $115 million to $117 million per year, mostly in the processing of cereals, cassava, potatoes and soy.

Q: What are the barriers to producing high-quality processed food in Malawi?

Henry Gaga: One barrier facing food processors in Malawi is consistent access to electricity. The majority of the local industries are in the rural areas where electricity is unreliable. Electrical outages are common — almost daily — and can last several hours.  If small and medium-sized food processors lose electricity, it is a barrier in creating processed foods and the ingredients can go bad if they are left out in the open.

Lack of access to foreign currency is another issue for the food processing industry in Malawi. One might ask, “Why don’t small and medium-sized food processors purchase petroleum or gas to generate electricity?” In Malawi, we are experiencing problems with the availability of American dollars or Euros. It is difficult to purchase petrol or gas without access to these currencies. Furthermore, lack of access to American dollars and Euros makes it difficult for small food processors to buy equipment or certain raw materials, like vitamins and minerals. And so it is difficult to produce quality products.

The processed food industry is also influenced by the lack of consistent food regulations. This lack of consistency makes it difficult for small and medium-sized food processors to know which laws to follow. Laws around the quality testing of processed food are not consistently applied within the industry in Malawi.

Potable water is only accessible to 65 percent of the population with only 2 percent being piped water. There is intermittent water availability in urban and industrial centers which can cause a shortage of water required for food processing. Lack of water leads food industries in Malawi to shut down. Food processors are forced to have water tanks installed at their premises. These are expensive and also run out of water.

Raw materials are problematic in terms of availability and quality. The quality is usually poor due to the lack of standards and quality control systems. Plus, the road and transport network is poor — to get the raw materials from farm-gates to factories can be difficult.

Q: In November, you visited General Mills’s and Cargill’s headquarters to receive training in best practices in food processing. What lessons have you learned from your work with Partners in Food Solutions – both from the companies and in the field – that can benefit the development of Malawi’s processed food industry?

Henry Gaga: What I learned at General Mills is the importance of food safety. In Malawi, what I see is that we really don’t pay much attention to food safety. The good thing is that there are ways of doing it. I have learned about hazard analysis and critical control points (HAACP) and Good Manufacturing Practices – we have to put all these things into practice in Malawi.

I was amazed to see a good number of ingredients processed from corn. In Malawi, we only process corn into “nsima,” a thick porridge, and eat it with sauce (usually made from vegetable or meat).  I saw vegetable oil being made into different products. In Malawi, we only crush oilseeds into crude oil and sometimes we refine it — that’s all. At General Mills and Cargill, I saw a great diversity of processed products compared to Malawi. I learned that diversified ingredients or products can be made from a single primary agricultural product by applying science and technology.

Another area that I have learned about is the importance of research and development. I think we could put financial resources into this area. In Malawi, nobody is actually doing any research in food. They say it’s a waste of time, which is why the processed food industry in Malawi constantly produces the same products. In the U.S., innovation is king. And that’s an area that we need to push back home.

The other area is management. The style of management in General Mills and Cargill is totally different from the style in Malawi – it’s open to everyone. People work in teams and you can’t always tell who is the senior person. The management style in Malawi focuses on the individual above everyone else. That is quite contrary to what I’ve seen in the United States. Based on my experience in the United States, maybe the culture and management style in Malawi is also a barrier for us.

A final lesson I have learned is that we put less emphasis on marketing and markets in Malawi. Many food processors are dependent on the World Food Programme (WFP) and prefer to sell to WFP or the government. Food processors don’t want to come up with a better product and they are not doing market research. They are not doing any product branding – what can I do with my product? Where can I sell it? Those, to me, are key things which I’ll be taking with me from my time with General Mills and Cargill.

Q: How can food processing play a role in improving nutrition?

Henry Gaga: Food should be available and accessible to everyone, and it should also be affordable. The only way we can do this is through food processing. We know that unpreserved agricultural products have a shorter shelf life than preserved agricultural products. Unpreserved agricultural products are seasonal in nature and perishable. It’s only through food processing that we make the food available throughout the year. When you process the foods, you can enrich them with vitamins and minerals. You can add value by adding nutrients which are not normally available in the diet of the local community. You can use the food in the treatment or the prevention of malnutrition — a common problem in Malawi.

Q: How can the work of Partners in Food Solutions (PFS) help to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers?

Henry Gaga: The objective of PFS really is to help the smallholder farmers. And the only way that smallholder farmers can be helped is to empower them. PFS empowers local smallholder farmers by strengthening the processors that buy their produce. If PFS is helping the food processor, then it is going to buy more from the local farmers. If the food processor is buying more from the local smallholder farmer then the farmers are going to generate more income. The extra income the farmer produces may be used to help improve their family’s nutrition and food security.

PFS is also creating employment with its work. In the rural areas of Malawi, growing the raw materials for food processing can generate new opportunities to employ people. This creates more employment, impacting Malawi’s general economy, which has quite high unemployment. We want both processors and farmers to view agro-processing as a business and work to improve their bottom line and improve their profit.