Consumer demand in developed countries for year-round availability of foods and their greater diversity, as well as health considerations, have resulted in growing markets for off-season produce, exotic fruit and vegetables, and organic produce.

According to a study by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), several developing countries have taken advantage of these developments to increase their exports of fresh fruits and vegetables (FFV).

Panelists during the recently held Africa Food Safety and Quality Summit underscored obliviousness on food safety importance, misuse of agri-inputs and microbiological hazards as the major fresh produce sector food safety concerns in Africa.

The panel was addressed by Cyprian Kabbis, District Chief Executive, Eastern Africa, Bureau Veritas; George Akida, Exports Manager, Africado Tanzania; Frank Obure, General Manager, Packhouses, AAA Growers; Jane Musindi, CEO, Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisors of Kenya (SOCAA); Mercy Chatyoka, Business Development & Innovation Lead, Armlead and Molly Abende, Production Manager, Burton & Bamber Co.Ltd.

The panelists underscored the need for food safety in the fresh produce value chain in Africa, adding that the sector requires to improve the safety of products for local, regional and international markets in equal measure.

They added that background training and capacity building both for the producers and for the consumers is necessary to enhance food safety and quality in the fresh produce value chain in Africa. They also agreed that there should be harmonization of standards in the domestic and overseas market as consumers are the same and prone to the same levels of risk in case of consumption of contaminated food.

According to Jane Musindi, CEO, Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisors of Kenya (SOCAA), only 5% of the total vegetables produced in Kenya goes into the export market, which is subjected to rigorous regulatory measures of the destination countries. 95% is retained for local consumption.

“We need to push the stringent measures of the export market to the domestic market as the domestic producers will be the regional suppliers in a few years. This starts with awareness creation for the consumers to know what they require and push it back on the market for the suppliers to meet these demands,” highlighted Jane.

Up to 2013, there were no regulatory measures put in place for green beans production. This was until the EU introduced regulation EU 669 in January the same year which saw several small-scale producers thrown out of the business attributable to compliance matters.

Kenyan authorities recently launched a quality mark for the fresh produce sector KS 1758 that is anticipated will enhance food safety as it is not a voluntary standard thus will prompt people to comply. The standard is timely due to the ever-growing sector that warrants a robust standard to manage it.

Local market potential falters

Frank Obure, the General Manager, Packhouses at AAA Growers, implored consumers to be fair to themselves and give the same care they offer to produce meant for exports in terms of safety and quality, to those grown for local consumption. The export segment has contributed significantly to diffusing good practices into the local market but push back into the local consumer is yet to take root.

“Thankfully we have the likes of Carrefour and Quickmart who’ve come into our national market. We are seeing quite a substantial volume of produce now going into the local market through these outlets. That is creating an impact and we are sure that as the consumer awareness goes out, a lot of people will start demanding and buying more from these supermarkets, because they are looking for suppliers who have good growing and packing standards,” he expounded.

Further he added that there’s a lot of laxity in the quality products such as tomatoes, cabbages and onions, imploring the local authorities to come in and run food safety sensitization campaigns and put in place necessary regulatory measures.

Cyprian Kabbis, the District Chief Executive, Eastern Africa, Bureau Veritas voiced that it’s high time food entities start thinking about the cost of non-compliance vis-a-vis compliance. “It’s always perceived that if you need to have a very good food safety system, you need to do a lot of verification and testing, which at times costly. But stop to think about how much it would cost you if you never tested that product, because that then gives you an answer on whether the cost of compliance is high,” he said.

As stated by George Akida, Export Manager, Africado Tanzania, the company’s improved avocado varieties gain more sales in the export market as the local consumers prefer indigenous varieties. He informed that more emphasis should be put on the nutrition aspect of the new varieties which have higher oil content and longer shelf life.

The sector has also been faced with microbiological issues from microorganisms such as Listeria and Salmonella. This is as a result of its dynamic nature of the consumer of fresh produce in export markets, which gave room for more convenient products like wash-to-cook or ready-to-eat vegetables, placing a lot of demand on sanitation.

Agri-inputs concerns

In Zimbabwe, the key point of concern is the correct and consistent use of pesticides to comply with stipulated residue levels in the fresh produce. Non-compliance has seen a lot of products retained at the border hampering the country’s fresh produce export market capacity, commented Mercy Chatyoka, the Business Development & Innovation Lead, Armlead Zimbabwe.

“We need to define for farmers the banned and permitted pesticides and to what limits they are allowed in different markets as requirements differ for every market that you’re exporting to,” Mercy stated.

And the challenge of pesticide residues doesn’t end there. Frank Obure, the General Manager, Packhouses at AAA Growers adds that while there are issues of abuse of pesticides the EU has a long list of pesticides that are approved for various crops whereas in Africa, the local authorities have only approved a limited number of pesticides, which limits farmers on the options they have, especially for emerging crops.

George Akida, however added that the absence of training on chemical and pesticide use leads to mishandling. He pointed out the inadequacy in technical and regulatory assessment of conformity within the region when carrying out controls hence urged governments to formulate robust policies and regulatory framework. “As a company, we have to carry out most tests outside the country due to limited testing capacity which is expensive for small producers,” he added.

Regulatory bodies intervention

According to Obure, Kenya lacks a structured way of managing crop protection hence participation of bodies like the Fresh Produce Consortium and Horticultural Crops Directorate (HCD), is needed in a round table discussion before authorities restrict a particular pesticide use.

Chatyoka is of the view that farmers organizations need to organize for a central hub for cold chain and processing facilities installation where farmers can aggregate their produce before shipment to intended destinations. She added that governments need to work closely with the supply chain to see what their needs are rather than offering a blanket intervention that doesn’t address the need. To that end, Tanzanian government has waived taxation charges on cold room facilities in a move to motivate industry players, added George.

The panelists called on Africans to leverage on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) as an avenue to trade amongst themselves after identifying the gaps that necessitate plenty of imports fo food products into the continent.

“We must look at food safety as a business enabler and this goes to regulation, so we don’t need to get to a point where food safety is being used as a trade barrier. I think that is completely far away from the goal. We need to keep people safe, but we need to do this in a way that also promotes business because economy and prosperity is still critical in the survival of human beings at large,” concluded Molly Abende, the Production Manager, Burton & Bamber Co.Ltd.

This feature appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Food Safety Africa. You can read the magazine HERE