Ghana: Entrepreneur taps into demand for locally-sourced baby food
Vera Osei-Bonsu is the founder of Start Right Nutrition and Eat Smart Foods, two companies based in Ghana that specialise in producing locally-sourced, nutritious baby and children’s food. In an interview with Jeanette Clarke, she shared insights on growing a packaged food business, from developing recipes to navigating manufacturing and distribution challenges.
In 2012, Vera Osei-Bonsu gave birth to her first child. After six months of exclusively breastfeeding, she sought healthy, local food options for the weaning process.
However, she found only imported baby food on supermarket shelves, lacking the nutritious local ingredients she wanted for her baby: millet, Guinea corn, sorghum, and yellow corn. Taking matters into her own hands, she processed these ingredients, incorporating vegetables and fruits like carrots, oranges, coconut and sweet potatoes.
“I used my baby as a test to prove to people that we have ingredients that can be as nutritious for our children as the imported products that were flooding the shelves,” she says.
Osei-Bonsu discussed her feeding plan with health practitioners during her child’s vaccination appointments. She named her fledgling company Start Right Nutrition and shared the recipes on its social media platforms. A growing following emerged, thanks to her diligent advocacy for the benefits of these ingredients.
To expand the business, she needed capital. Her only assets at the time were the over 100 recipes she created. These were compiled into a recipe book and published, assisting mothers in transitioning their babies from breastmilk to a balanced diet based on local ingredients.
“We had a massive turnout for the launch and all 500 initial copies were sold out.”
Osei-Bonsu invested the proceeds to convert her recipes into cereal powders that could be cooked in under five minutes. Friends and family tried the products and vouched for their quality. The next step was establishing a manufacturing facility and obtaining the necessary approvals from the Ghana Standards Authority and certification from the Food and Drugs Authority.
Osei-Bonsu hired her first two employees and began searching for the machinery to make the products. Adhering to the Food and Drugs Authority guidelines, she found a shopfront spacious enough to be divided into the necessary three areas: storage for raw materials, a processing section, and a space for the finished products. She procured a dehydrator to remove moisture from crops like millet and corn, converting them into powder.
Building a distribution network
The ultimate goal was to replace imported products on supermarket shelves with locally sourced and produced baby food. However, achieving this has been easier said than done; even now, Osei-Bonsu faces challenges getting her product into larger retail supermarkets like Melcom and Shoprite.
Despite these challenges, the company found a dedicated target market to engage directly. Osei-Bonsu and her small team forged relationships with hospitals and mother care centres, providing the product for them to sell to visiting mothers. Alongside this approach, a significant breakthrough came when China Mall in Accra listed Start Right products.
The company also discovered that many women who used the product for their own children were interested in becoming resellers, adding their margin to the wholesale price. “With our extensive database, built up over the years of advocacy for good nutrition, we have set up WhatsApp groups in different regions of Ghana,” says Osei-Bonsu. “Today, we have around 23 of those groups for caregivers and that is how we have identified individual distributors and resellers.”
The company suggests a recommended retail price, offering a 7% wholesale discount for large orders. “We try to manage pricing as best we can with our recommended price, but it is not possible to control it 100%,” Osei-Bonsu admits.
The company’s products can also be found in smaller retail stores and supermarkets throughout Ghana, as well as in its two own retail shops in Greater Accra.
Expanding product offerings and battling imitators
In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe, the focus shifted towards healthy eating, bolstering immune systems, and fortifying against the dangers of the virus.
“Adults could receive a vaccine, but children could not. I realised that we couldn’t just Start Right, we had to Eat Smart as well – and that’s where our second brand name originated,” explains Osei-Bonsu. The team crafted combinations designed to naturally boost the immune system, using ingredients like orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which are rich in vitamin A.
The current product line-up of Eat Smart includes Yellowcorn and Carrot Powder, Oatie Veggies Powder, and Sweet Potato and Veggies Powder. All Eat Smart powder mixes can be cooked as porridge in just a few minutes by mixing with milk or water and boiling. They can also serve as a nutritional addition in recipes for pancakes, cupcakes, and other dishes. The raw materials are sourced directly from farmers in northern Ghana.
Osei-Bonsu identifies the yellow corn product as the best seller, so much so that competitors have tried to replicate the company’s recipe and even its product names. These rivals rely on the recognisability of Eat Smart’s product names to attract customers, and then compete on pricing by using cheaper packaging instead of the eco-friendly cardboard boxes that Eat Smart employs.
The company hopes that the Ghana Food and Drugs Authority will address its concerns about product duplication, but it is also proactively rethinking its strategy for the future.
To keep differentiating what she offers to the market, Osei-Bonsu is preparing to launch a range of Eat Smart instant meals. It is a necessary next step, she says, to compete with the multinational importers and to meet a growing need for even more convenience from its clientele. “Our customers want something that they can add to their children’s lunchboxes. Hopefully, by early next year, we should be launching these.”
Osei-Bonsu acknowledges the importance of tailoring marketing strategies for different market segments. For low-income groups, the approach of advocacy and networks built up with hospitals and mother centres has proven effective.
Middle- and higher-income mothers can be found on social media, and the company ensures that it shares high-quality content regularly, notes Osei-Bonsu. “This latter group also has mobile phones, and we share our recipes on our WhatsApp groups. We allow them to order on WhatsApp and arrange for delivery on the same day.” These recipes demonstrate how to use the powder for dishes like pancakes and swallows (solid porridge pieces known as banku in Ghana).
The company has amassed over 38,000 followers across its various social media platforms, and in total, another 7,000 women on 23 WhatsApp groups. This customer base has facilitated a steady increase in sales, to the extent that between January and March 2023, the company produced and sold 3,000 boxes of each of its three products.
Overcoming expansion challenges and planning for growth
Finding the right skills to diversify the product range poses a challenge. Moving into the instant food space will require Eat Smart to acquire key personnel in areas such as quality assurance, and appointing the appropriate human capital will be crucial to success. “It is not easy to find and retain these skills,” she says.
Unfair competition practices pose another obstacle. “It takes a lot of time, when you are in manufacturing, to perfect the process and then obtain approvals from the authorities for new products. By the time you are ready, people are already producing similar ones – they were waiting for you to innovate.”
For the most part, the company has expanded using funding from its own operations. In 2022, it was able to relocate to a larger manufacturing facility. While the focus remains on Ghana, Osei-Bonsu believes that there could be a regional market for the company’s products, for which it would need substantial funds. It is considering taking on equity partners in the future.
East Smart Foods and Start Right Nutrition founder Vera Osei-Bonsu’s contact information
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