Out of Africa: Bringing age-old ingredients to the west

6 Jan 2020

Successfully introducing nutritious and appealing ingredients to western markets is a major prize, and the continent of Africa is a promising region for grains, fruits and vegetables with connotations of adventurous eating.

Many African-sourced foods are already well known, and ingredients like okra, sorghum and plantain are all on the rise in packaged foods, according to Mintel. But there is also a growing market for functional and nutritional ingredients that are less well known among Europeans and North Americans.

Out of Africa: Bringing age-old ingredients to the west
Okra is one of many African ingredients to have piqued interest in the west

Kuli Kuli, for example, is a company that specialises in moringa, a West African tree used for its nutrient-dense leaves. Kuli Kuli sells moringa bars, powder, energy shots and teas, and works with women in West Africa to provide them with a sustainable livelihood by using more moringa locally and selling a portion of their harvest to the US market. The story of the ingredient plays an important role in its marketing.

Similarly, baobab fruit pulp was commercialised in Europe after PhytoTrade Africa won novel foods approval for the ingredient in 2008, and it also benefits from strong emphasis on sustainability and contribution to local communities. High in vitamin C, potassium and fibre, baobab pulp is found in a range of products including juice drinks and snack bars. Thought to be a natural energy booster, its greatest potential may be in a new wave of energy drinks targeted at the health conscious consumer. Matahi Energy Juice was a first mover in Europe in this space when it launched in France in 2013. The drink contains organic baobab fruit pulp and organic guarana as a source of caffeine.

Baobab also benefits from German government-backed project called Baofood, which aims to ensure a sustainable food supply in African nations harvesting the baobab fruit.

Traditional African grains like sorghum, freekeh, amaranth, fonio and teff are finding an enthusiastic market in North America and Europe, too, as consumers seek the latest ‘super grain’. Sales of ancient grains like quinoa – native to South America – have skyrocketed over the past few years, but consumers are always on the lookout for the next nutritious, high fibre ingredient. Recently, US-based grains specialist Terra Ingredients has announced a plan to scale up fonio production from West Africa – a grain that is notoriously hard to process – with an initial processing step in Senegal, followed by further processing in the United States.

Many packaged food trends start in fine dining, and African cuisine is on the rise in major centres around the world. According to Mintel, African dishes are often gluten free and high in plant-based protein, so chime well with current western food trends – and also are making headway in foodservice. The market researcher says many African cuisines and ingredients are unexplored outside of the continent, and present huge opportunities for innovation.