By Caesar Cheelo

At an African Researcher's Conference years ago, a brief exchange between two participants revealed vividly the divergent mentalities of African thinkers.

One participant seemed convinced that the West had become stringent about testing the compliance of African originating foods with required standards on quality and consumer safety. His conspiracy theory was that this stringency was a deliberate ploy to unfairly restrict African food products from entering Western markets and to rob Africa of every possible opportunity to expand its global food trade.

"Why should Europe be so concerned about the level of fructose in the fruits we export to them?" another participant challenged, rallying the Conference behind him. "They are resolute to controlling fructose levels simply because they know we have a comparative advantage in organic, natural-sugar fruits. Our organic fruits fetch top dollar on their markets so they want to block us! The World Health Organization is backing the West with global food rules that prevent our exports!" Several heavy-set men in the Conference could be seen nodding with approval and encouragement. "The West, backed by unreasonable demands of world health freaks are stifling Africa's export growth!" The hall erupted in applause.

An elegant African Lady stood up next. With a cool and patient demeanor, she waited for the room to calm down and then explained the real issues behind the so-called world health freaks. She emphasized the importance of understanding consumers. "Before we label people as being this or that, we must take time to understand what drives their decisions. Western governments are simply responding to their consumers when they set these ‘freakish’ food safety and quality standards. Consumers in the West are developing an acute consumption consciousness because they now face a very real and daunting problem of widespread obesity. This problem stems from poor eating habits like eating foods with too much sugar. It should come as no surprise, when the West spends millions of dollars to fight obesity, that it will simultaneously erect strict food standards to protect its consumers and prevent obesity". The hall was silent. The heavy-set men were now looking down at their bellies as if to avoid the elegant Lady's stern gaze; the case for ‘the unreasonable demands of the world health freaks’ was clearly lost.

An important take-home is that as long as Africa, Zambia included, keeps looking for hand-outs, and sympathies from the rest of the world, the continent will not mature to take full advantage of the opportunities of global free trade. The continent must take initiative and invest in research and development to understand the tastes and preferences of consumers in potential markets.
Specifically, Zambian food producers should seriously consider learning the habits of consumers in potential domestic and foreign markets. Even so-called freakish tastes and preferences should be well-understood and appropriately responded to. Gone is the age where consumers simply accepted any product that was handed to them over a countertop.

So what can Zambian food producers do differently? One thing, they can find out more about the demographics of potential markets. For example, three of Zambia's neighbours, Angola, DRC and Mozambique, have a combined population of over 110 million, of which 35 million reside in urban areas with 16 million as the combined population from largest city in each country. The population of just three cities is larger than the entire Zambian population of 14 million. These cities are clearly a huge market, with urbane buying power for food imports.

Zambian producers can also study consumption patterns in proximate markets. In 2012, Angola, DRC and Mozambique's food import bills were about US$4 billion, US$1 billion and US$0.8 billion, respectively, implying a total food import bill of nearly US$6 billion. Zambia's food exports to all its trading partners worldwide were US$0.5 billion, which is only 8.3% of the total food import needs of its three neighbours. Thus, in 2012, Zambia would have had to increase its total food exports at least 12 times in order to satisfy food imports of the three countries. So, what food items might these be that are being imported by Zambia's neighbours? A look at disaggregated trade statistics would provide the answer.

Historically, the three countries have not been high domestic food producers, given various episodes of war, which eroded productive capacities. The countries also depend on mineral resources. These aspects explain the high propensities to import food. Like Zambia, all three countries are members of SADC. DRC, like Zambia, is also a member of COMESA, meaning that Zambian producers can work with Government to negotiate to access these markets on preferential terms.

All three countries have different official languages from Zambia's. This means Zambian food producers seeking to export to these countries should learn how to package their commodities with labels in official languages of destination markets and learn customs procedures and requirements as stated in the foreign languages of their destination markets. Farmers in Mwinilunga should label their pineapples as 'abacaxi' (Portuguese for pineapple) if the labels are to make sense to Portuguese consumers.

Clearly, Zambian food producers could do many things differently to realize the opportunities beyond the border.


The author is a researcher at the Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR).
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