From farmer to chef: Developing the African cuisine value chain


Chef Pierre Thiam

New innovations in the food industry, one of the world’s oldest and largest industries, are creating attractive opportunities on the African continent. With unusual blends of spices and bold flavours, ingredients and techniques from African regions have emerged as the new gastronomic trend in kitchens around the world. As on other continents, the agro-food industry plays a fundamental role in the creation of income and employment opportunities in Africa’s developing economies.

A rising gastronomical and entrepreneurial energy is transforming the African scene, with African chefs strongly advocating for sustainable, local food systems. These businesses are not only meeting growing local and regional demand for locally produced and wholesome foods, but also creating an incubator for culinary quality and artistry. High-profile chefs, young “foodpreneurs” and institutions across the continent are developing concepts ranging from food trucks and fast-food chains to stand-alone fine dining restaurants that revolve around plant-forward menus.

Some chefs are also promoting African cuisine abroad, and by extension gastro-tourism to their home countries, as informal ambassadors. One example is New York-based Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam, whose recipes have inspired magazine articles and in-depth reportages by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, who devoted an entire episode of his travelling food series Parts Unknown to Senegal. Social media and food bloggers are also helping to put Africa on the culinary map. An article in Ventures Africa focused on eight African women bloggers who are promoting recipes from across the continent.

At 1.2 billion today, Africa’s population is projected to more than double by 2050. Youth form the majority of Africa’s population and the majority of the unemployed. Empowering them through government and private sector programmes to create enterprises along the agricultural value chain while feeding Africa will go a long way towards optimising the sector and could lead to the realisation of a demographic dividend. Such programmes could focus on practical business skills, including proposal development and communication, as well as on life skills and interpersonal skills. Through the introduction of incubation centres, programmes could help young people acquire the technical skills, technologies and market knowledge they need to transform entrepreneurial ideas into viable enterprises.

African cuisine offers a different entry point into agricultural value chains, complementing more traditional approaches that focus on agricultural produce production and processing. African cuisine has the potential to become a trademark for countries and regions, advancing regional integration and tourism and strengthening African identities. When it comes to making the food system more environmentally sustainable, chefs have a unique part to play through their ability to connect producers and consumers, understand where food really comes from, and appreciate the ‘wants’ of consumers everywhere.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) recognises just how large the African cuisine value chain’s potential is to create jobs for youth and contribute to GDP growth, even in the face of the lack of government investment in the industry. The recently approved AfDB Group Strategy for Jobs for Youth in Africa, 2016-2025 intends to create 25 million jobs and train 32 million young people, impacting 50 million Africans over the next decade. The strategy is designed to increase direct and indirect employment, resulting in reduced poverty, inequality and economic and conflict-driven migration, and increased social cohesion and political stability. To accomplish these goals, the strategy aims to increase inclusive employment and entrepreneurship, strengthen human capital, and create durable labour market linkages. In this context, the Bank will create new flagship programmes in agriculture, industrialisation and information and communication technologies, as well as an innovation lab that will test, assess and scale promising solutions to accelerate job creation in Africa.

In November 2015, the AfDB’s Office of the Special Envoy on Gender (SEOG) launched the African Cuisine initiative in South Africa. Experts from eastern and southern Africa gathered to explore the opportunities and challenges inherent in supporting the growth of an African cuisine value chain that leverages diverse African cultures and traditions.

As the AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina stated, agriculture is a business. As such, Africa needs to move away from solely producing raw consumables and invest more in value-added processing units and branded food products. This requires, amongst other things: strengthening the business skills of entrepreneurs; creating platforms for dialogue; and increasing access to finance. As a matter of priority, the linkages within the value chain need to be strengthened, connecting agribusiness hubs, universities and culinary schools. Kitchen/culinary incubators can play an important part in this. By offering shared commercial kitchen space to help early-stage catering, retail and wholesale companies, foodpreneurs can more easily get their businesses off the ground. The main draw of a kitchen incubator is that, by clustering under the same roof, the businesses share costs. Incubators can catalyse the growth of businesses, jobs and culture supported by mentorship programmes, technical support and assistance with funding and business support. Like many other economic activities in Africa, large segments of the food value chain are mainly informal. Development partners and policy-makers therefore need to find ways to work with the informal sector in order to contribute to building an African cuisine value chain.

A holistic approach to agriculture as a business needs to be promoted, raising awareness of the different career opportunities and relationships between actors in this sector: from farmer to chef. By working together, the AfDB, governments, private sector, universities and other actors can offer young women and men the opportunity to pursue these diverse careers. Measures including vocational training, financial literacy, and access to resources and networks will help them build their skills and produce easy-to-market products, which will lead to increased and improved productivity, increased employment and the transmission of know-how.

This article was fist published on the African Development Bank blog.