SACOMA Global Foods Innovation’s CEO, Mrs. Perez Ochieng, is one of the most successful Africans in the UK. Her MSc in Food Innovation and packaging has enabled her to become a celebrated food manufacturer with an agenda in the use of disruptive food technologies. She is currently involved in the utilisation of sweet potato as an ingredient for health food products for the European markets.
Perez is currently using her technical skills, knowledge and network to help African smallholder farmers develop products that are demanded by the UK and European markets. Through SACOMA she has built her own brand of Sweet potato products that include dessert, snack and breakfast cereals. Her products such as OAT VEGAN PANCAKE MIX is the ideal choice for breakfast or as a nutritious snack.
Discussing as part of a panel on “connecting African Agri-SMEs to the international value chains”, Perez revealed that the reason why she chose sweet potato as a focus agricultural commodity was that a lot of people in many African countries see sweet potato as a poor man’s food. So she wanted to demonstrate that with innovation and creativity, such any African food can fetch high returns in the European market as long as it is healthy, safe and meets European standards.
Commenting on Perez’s innovation, Mr Edward Katende the session moderator added that, “in Uganda, the orange fleshed sweet potato promoted by donors and NGOS as a good source of vitamin A . But it has not progressed from a typical poor man’s family staple food product to the middle class and the high-end (who can pay a higher profit) and yet nutrition is one of our challenges and a lot of our people are stunted”.
The challenge, Edward Katende added, is how we break that barrier in terms of people’s mindsets and in this case how Perez has broken the mentality for the Kenyan farmers and small-scale agri-processors.
Perez’s must win battle was to make sure that the sweet potato from Africa landed in the house of the highest land in Europe that is the Buckingham Palace. It is now consumed by the Queen and the Duke of York is one of their mentors but also a big lover of the Kenyan sweet potatoes.
Perez and team have also gone to the most high profile universities in food tech and innovation and have been able to demonstrate that you can utilise sweet potatoes in various things. In this regard, SACOMA has built strategic partnerships with universities in the UK and in Denmark and all of them appreciated that sweet potato is truly an intriguing ingredient in developing so many products or to that extent. Accordingly, they have been able to elevate the sweet potato from just ordinary food to a level where it has been demanded as a premium food products in Europe.
Edward stated that there has been a challenge on the issue of food safety, traceability and quality of many African food which limits exports. Furthermore, many farmers struggle to supply consistence volumes throughout the year.
Perez reiterated that European Union as a body is not going to relax food regulations! Food safety is paramount and this is why the EU food health standards and regulations are set to ensure the food that is consumed in the EU, produced in the EU or imported into the EU are all subject to tight regulations. The EU then sets up systems that ensure compliance and reviews them constantly as changes occur whether it is climate compliance, packaging compliance and constant monitoring of any potential new crops or animal diseases that could impact on the food chains. So, they’re not going to relax those regulations and the key challenge is whether African suppliers (seeking entry into these markets) are able to review their systems and standards in order for us to meet those regulations and test the market. So, when you talk about exporting the first and most important thing is to find out what the regulations pertaining to different crops are. It is not just fresh produce or processed foods but there are regulations on fresh produce, soil maintenance, climate compliance, management of diseases etc. She advised that EU is not about only standards but you must be able to demonstrate traceability i.e trace the product back to its original source, for example if you’re doing a pancake or sweet potato oats, you should be able to trace each and all the ingredient that are present in this particular product and that is one challenge that manufacturers in Africa would have because we don’t have traceability systems.
The European consumer is so educated and in control and the current consumer trends all point consumer demand for traceability, transparency and authenticity. For example with block-chain and OCR barcodes, consumers are able to trace products back to their origins; and now they are demanding healthy products, natural ingredients, safe foods that comply with issues such as fairness to farmers and workers where their products come from; issues of using child labour in your farms can be subject to consumers rejecting a product. Distributors and retailers are also demanding to know full product details and this reinforces that controls that are already set at ports of entry for imported food products.
Perez added that OCR barcode technology allows consumers to scan their products and find out all traceability information and also the number or kind of certificates attained by the manufacturer and more importantly transparency where the manufacturer honestly discloses all ingredients.
Perez reiterated that strict enforcement of the regulation make that regulation work in this country< she said that the enforcement officers can walk into Tesco Supermarket, pick your products from the shell and take it to the Laboratory to test it and if they find one of the ingredients not suitable, they will pull it off the shelf and you as a distributor will be required to do what is called a product re-call. This is a very important part of traceability systems and it’s the legal responsibility of the food manufacturers to ensure systems that can trace all ingredients in a batch of a product. The good news is that Perez and her team can deliver trainings or workshops or advice to help any food business in Africa that needs the support and the help to comply with these EU Food safety, Regulations and standards together with setting up traceability systems.
Elly R. T. Kamugisha, Executive Director, Uganda Export Promotion Board affirmed that Uganda has two European certified Laboratories that are doing certification. About traceability, recently in Uganda the government said that they were going to register coffee farmers and some people were opposed to registration. Elly validated what Perez said on traceability by adding that the government of Uganda wanted to know where coffee has come from, from which garden, when and what species.
Elly added that they have had challenges with interceptions of fruits and vegetables into the EU including Britain and the issue has been associated with lack of traceability.
Elly stated that trade between Great Britain and Uganda has been declining since 2010 from USD 164 million to USD 82 million in 2018, yet there are opportunities for increasing exports to UK and other parts of the world.
Uganda has a lot of opportunities in production and export of Fruits & vegetables (with value addition), value added livestock/ dairy products, tea, coffee, cosmetics (shear nut products), Fish fillets, cut flowers, Iron & steel products alongside services like tourism, ICT and other professional services.
However, like any other developing country we do have challenges around standards and quality assurance as we try to penetrate the global value chains. These are real issues influencing our trade with UK and other key markets therefore we need to address them to grow the Ugandan economy. He emphasised by saying, the more we export the more the jobs, the more foreign exchange earned, and taxes paid to grow our revenue.
Among the things that he shared to address some of these challenges were:
- The importance of collaboration and sharing of roles,
- commercial diplomacy,
- undertaking market studies and trade promotion events to showcase Ugandan products and services,
- B2B matchmaking and
- 5supporting digital marketing
Elly further added that Uganda Export Promotion Board has started a capacity building programme for Uganda Embassies and Commission’s staff to market Uganda. Mentioned that with the support from Lord Dolar Popat, United Kingdom High Commission to Uganda and The Uganda High Commission to United Kingdom, discussions with the big chain stores in town have started (Sainsbury; Tesco; others.) in order to open opportunities for Uganda exports.
Elly finally applauded the good relationship between the Uganda government and the people of United Kingdom and urged the Ugandan diaspora to continue with the big role they do in marketing Uganda and Ugandan brands. Called all Ugandans to work together in enhancing Uganda’s economic growth and development. It matters to us all.