Why Senegal is banking on processed foods

FutureFood 2050: How ingenuity will feed the world.

Senegal’s veteran food science leader Ababacar Sadikh Ndoye says food processing technology has an important role to play in ending food insecurity.

As developing African nations strive to improve crop yields, they also face the challenge of getting those crops into local consumers’ kitchens in an unspoiled, usable form.

How ingenuity will feed the world.
Ababacar Ndoye

That’s why Senegal’s Food Technology Institute (ITA) continues to tackle food processing improvements as part of its mission to boost the western African nation’s food security and reduce its dependence on imported foods. About 2.2 million people, or 16 percent of Senegal’s population, were food insecure in 2013, according to a survey conducted by the government and the World Food Programme.

“I think if we work on these questions of self-sufficiency [and] general food security … lots of problems will be resolved for the young people,” says recently retired ITA director Ababacar Sadikh Ndoye, a veteran of four decades at the public center for applied food sciences.

Ndoye, a food scientist whose training was primarily in cereal chemistry, has spent his career trying to encourage the Senegalese to return to native foods like millet, sorghum and cowpeas (a legume). He has led much of the Dakar, Senegal-based institute’s work in adapting ways to process local grains, for example, to make them more attractive to consumers and preserve them longer while raising local farmers’ incomes by adding value to their crops. The institute also trains producers and farmers from other West African countries in its techniques as well as sharing ideas with officials from around the region. In fact, ITA’s work has inspired Nigeria to begin mandating that flours contain a small percentage of local grains, says Ndoye.

There’s no doubt that [food] processing (in Africa) is going to see an extraordinary leap in the coming years.”
— Ababacar Sadikh Ndoye

Bringing local flours to market

In Senegal, local grains such as sorghum and pearl millet had always been processed by hand, using water to help separate out the husk and yielding a flour that typically didn’t last longer than a day. ITA sought out de-husking and milling machines that work without using water and abrade the grains rather than crushing them, says Ndoye. Then, the technology was adapted to produce a local flour of higher quality that could keep up to six months. ITA shows local entrepreneurs how to use this technology (the government often offers loans to purchase the equipment), and the ongoing work has led to a proliferation of new local products on supermarket shelves and in small shops: millet couscous, millet semolina and mixed-flour breads.

Increasing Senegal’s production of mixed-flour breads is another step away from imported wheat flour and toward greater use of local grains, so ITA offers training to bakers who commit to making these breads. The World Bank’s West African Agricultural Productivity Program provides any needed equipment, such as extra mixers since each flour must be made into its own dough before being mixed with the others. So far, about 50 bakeries in Dakar have participated, and the program is expanding outside the capital city.

To meet this growing demand for local grains, says Ndoye, Senegalese bakeries and other businesses increasingly are signing contracts directly with farmers and paying them a premium, rather than shopping for grains at markets. Pierre Ndiaye, the founder of Mamelles Jaboot, which produces sweetened yogurts with local grain mixed in, says everyone wins: The farmers receive higher prices and peace of mind from securing buyers before the harvest, while Ndiaye knows exactly what quality grain he is getting.

Although Senegal still imports the majority of its cereal supply, and wheat imports remain high at more than 500,000 metric tons per year, Ndoye says imports would have grown even faster without the institute’s work. In recent years, the country has also made some progress in reducing its dependence on cereal imports.

“Before Senegal’s independence [in 1960], you had to go to the village to eat millets,” he says. “Now, in the city, not only do you have them in the supermarket, but you can eat them mixed with yogurt.”

Processing more local products

Ndoye says the institute has also set its sights on food processing strategies for other local products: peanuts and milk, hibiscus and cowpeas. In each case, ITA researchers brainstorm ways to transform the foods into products that will keep longer, compete better against foreign products in Senegal, and generate more revenue for farmers.

For example, Ndoye notes that the price of hibiscus buds—traditionally used in Senegal to make fresh juice—quadrupled from around 60 cents per kilogram to $2.40 per kilogram after ITA adapted a spray drying process in the late 1990s that is used to pulverize fruits and flowers into powders. Researchers developed a coating process that results in a powder that maintains the flower’s deep red color.

“That means that … the producers who commit themselves to growing hibiscus have revenue,” says Ndoye.

These transfers of technology and know-how also serve to promote Senegalese products abroad. Ndoye says a Japanese hotel chain was one of the first clients for the hibiscus powder, which it uses to make gummies and macarons. And Keridam, a Swiss-based company started by a Senegalese businessman, buys a hibiscus juice concentrate that the ITA developed and makes, then sells reconstituted juice at stores in Switzerland and France.

“A European [consumer] who buys Keridam … is contributing more or less to combating poverty,” Ndoye says. “It’s this kind of solidarity that we have to promote in the world.”

‘An extraordinary leap’ for African food processing

Looking to the future, ITA is currently working with Purdue University on an extrusion method to make instant cereals for babies from pearl millet. More work also needs to be done on ways to extract juices from local fruits, Ndoye says, and ITA is collaborating with the Purdue University International Food Technology Center to make what he calls an energy drink from coconut water and hibiscus juice.

“All the [food processing] technology that has been developed in the northern [developed] countries will come, that’s clear,” he says.

Ndoye says he’s heartened by the fact that African governments are starting to get more serious about agriculture. The Economic Community of West African States, a regional bloc that includes Senegal, has asked its members to invest at least 10 percent of their gross domestic product in developing their agricultural sectors, and matching grants are available from the bloc for those investments.

“There’s no doubt that the processing (in Africa) is going to see an extraordinary leap in the coming years,” he says.

And that’s fortunate, he says, because the world needs Africa to be as productive as possible. “With the world population projections, and the fact that Africa has 25 percent of the world’s arable land, it has to look to feed its people with its own food,” says Ndoye.

Sarah DiLorenzo

Sarah DiLorenzo is a freelance journalist based in Dakar, Senegal, who covers West Africa. She has written for The Associated Press, USA Today and the United Nations’ IRIN humanitarian news and analysis service.

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