African baby food makers have an edge over foreign producers, says entrepreneur

This article is an excerpt from the Made by Africa: Creating value through integration report by the International Trade Centre (ITC).

Demand is growing for locally produced baby foods with African ingredients and recipes.

The absence of infant cereals in Cameroon prompted Pascaline Nenda to create her own baby food company, called Lemana, in 2013, based on local flavours and ingredients. She says African baby food makers have an edge over foreign producers because they understand local eating habits and are less expensive than imported baby foods.

“We have an advantage that products imported from other continents do not have,” Nenda says.

“We already have gold in our hands. On the African continent, we have diversified gluten-free digestive flours. I also wanted to reduce reliance on imports of instant cereals. These imported products are very expensive when we consider the purchasing power of rural and vulnerable populations in Cameroon.”

Her company’s Blesolac instant cereals use a mix of soya-based raw materials made in Cameroon. The entire manufacturing process happens domestically. While the cereals also contain imported wheat and powder milk, Nenda is trying to forge commercial ties with African milk exporters. She is also gradually increasing the share of inputs supplied by Cameroonian or African partners, which could reduce costs for consumers.

“Demand for such products is growing,” Nenda says. “Many consumers in African countries understand that consuming locally is very important. It creates jobs while keeping the added value local.”

The value of African ingredients and recipes

Nenda attended food-processing classes to improve the quality of her cereals. The training also sparked new ideas, such as replacing cow milk with soy milk and developing innovative production methods to use sugar from dates grown in north Cameroon. She recently launched a fruit puree line using locally produced mangoes, papaya and bananas.

She has faced her share of obstacles – especially in terms of accessing credit. “In Cameroon, the small entrepreneur fights alone. My company needs more sophisticated machinery to respond to market demands and face competition from imported labels. We must encourage banks to finance companies with potential in the sector.”

The African Continental Free Trade Area creates opportunities for business owners across the continent, says Nenda, who expects her own company to benefit from the boost in trade and removal of barriers that the trade agreement promises.

“We must make free trade between countries completely available and easy,” she says. “For example, my product, which sells for 1,000 FCFA ($1.50) in Cameroon, is sold at a higher price in Congo because of tariffs and the cost of transport, which ultimately increases the final selling price.”

The popularity of the company’s line of Blesolac cereals among African consumers feeds Nenda’s enthusiasm to invest in ‘made in Africa’ food processing. She believes there is room for a change in the markets’ mindset.

“We have the opportunity not only to vary our children’s diet, but also to promote a new education in terms of infant food.”