The European Alliance on Agricultural knowledge for Development

How to generate the demand for African traditional food?

Interview with Dr. Habiba Hassan-Wassef, MD, Research Adviser, National Research Center, Cairo, Egypt

Health and Nutrition Policy in Sustainable Development
Member, National School Feeding Program Committee
Independent EU Expert in Food and Health
Independent African Development Bank Nutrition Expert
Member, African Leaders for Nutrition Technical Advisory Group
Trustee, African Nutrition Society
Council Member, Federation of African Nutrition Societies

Dr. Habiba Hassan-Wassef, was interviewed during the 2nd African Symposium on Mycotoxicology entitled “Mitigating mycotoxin contamination in the African food and feed chain” (24 – 27 June 2018. Mombasa, Kenya). She answers in a first interview the question: How to generate the demand for African traditional food?

Transcript of the interview:

To the local consumer it is terribly important to know that they have a taste memory. And if they are – as most households – are brought up brought within a memory of that taste they will always look for it. This is one of the good notice that you know the demand will always be there. Especially in countries with an old well entrenched food tradition.

Now, even when you see people for the sake of ease – let say to satisfy to the demands of modern life: like mobility, not having enough time to eat, eat outside the home, etc. They always go for solutions – but when you look at it: Western solutions. Why? Because the Take Away is a Western company. But many take always in Africa are now selling African food.

We go back to the question: In order to satisfy the modern consumer, I have to go through modern technology, modern food processing and the food industry. Without it I will get nowhere. That is a fact.

In order to deal correctly with it I have to protect my food source. The identity of my food source. The food source – if it is a precious source – like, the baobab for instance. The baobab is African. You don’t find the baobab anywhere else. It has to have a geographical indication label. Because they make baobab juice and a lot baobab food. But I don’t know if Africa has already developed a geographical indicator label for baobab. We need to protect the intellectual property right if it is a specific process of processing or the intellectual property right if there is even a simple traditional processing involved like drying. Very simple, I mean, not manufactured and the geographic indication. Any initiative to bring to the light – I call it “uncover” – and discover the treasure of African food heritage, you need to protect it. That’s one thing.

For Africans, I rely on continuity. Everybody knows this “grandmothers’ food” and how tasty it was. And he would like to use it. But it is so full fat, or it is so full of sugar of or so full of salt – like salted fish from West Africa. Or there is so much sauce that I cannot carry it or take it to the office and eat it as lunch.

The preferences of the modern lifestyle have to be responded to, have to be catered for. Smaller portions, ready to serve, etc., etc. And as much as you can or in order to continue or to preserve the attraction of that food, you have to work towards using food technology to preserve the traditional taste. When you cook it differently. When you put less fat, especially fat, the taste changes. You need to take care of that. This is why the researchers work with chefs on really intricate issues, before putting out a traditional dish in a five-star hotel and saying: “Do you want the menu of the local traditional food or a Western menu?”

If you look in African countries and see what they have on the traditional menu – sometimes it is purely traditional and you cannot really eat it. It is too hot; it is too fatty. But sometimes in other hotels they worked on it to make it more attractive for the consumer.

Now I’m jumping to the global consumer. He has more demands than the African consumer for traditional food – because they already know it. While you try to sell it and to introduce it to the global consumer. In this respect I would like to talk about a young Ghanaian girl who is now an American citizen but she respects her African roots. She is doing an excellent work promoting African food with recipes, and media and meetings and a lot of exposure. And they are buying – in the States they are buying. But it is adapted to the Western taste, to the modern lifestyle. And what is terribly important: she is also interested in educating the new generation.
In a second interview Dr. Habiba Hassan-Wassef makes some suggestions on how to generate more African interests in the Codex Alimentaris.

Transcript of the interview:

Why is there a poor [African] attendance of Codex Alimentaris meetings?
There are many reasons. One of the reasons could be that they don’t know what it is all about. Just plain simple reason. So why should they go? The other thing is: I don’t know how the invitation is set up. In my country they have a Codex Alimentarius committee – in Egypt – as part of the activity of what is called the Egyptian organisation for standardisation and quality. It is members of that organisation plus a technical member – professional – that knows the about subject under discussion, that goes and attends that meeting to represent Egypt.

But when I started to work on African traditional food –in 2008, when we started – I investigated the need to protect and preserve the identity of the food and prevent what we call piratage by industry. So I investigated the issue of a geographical indication label to say it is from Egypt, a food from Egypt. And the label of traditional food and that the processing technology is a traditional method. And you have to present evidence of ancient ways of preparing that food. The end, the ultimate thing is to go to the Codex and have these specifications of that food accepted globally. For instance, we have a traditional food that is sesame paste or tahini. There was an argument between Israel, Lebanon and Egypt, about what are the standards that the Codex will approve because all three of us we produce tahini. It is quite critical. It may be important for products that are specific to the country. But tahini is shared with many countries. It doesn’t have one country origin. It’s that one region before it got divided in modern times. It was one place, one country.

I discovered when I investigated what’s happening in the Codex that there are regional committees where the food of the region is discussed and presented other than what is called specialised committees. Specialised Committee like the committee which is a special food committee – especially for young children, the labelling: the composition, the analysis, what can be allowed to be in it, what is not allowed, how to write the label, how to use it. How to write the indication for its use, the directions for its use? All this goes through the codex. It is terribly important. I discovered that the Codex managers complained that very few people came from Africa to attend the regional committee. And this made me very unhappy. Is it because they don’t know what is expected from tem and therefore they are suspicious? Is it because they don’t know about African tradition? They may be a chemist or an agronomist, or an economist. And not know anything about African tradition. In order to know traditional food of your country you need to be a little bit more specialised.

How can we generate more African interest?

More interest can be generated through the network of the nutrition societies across Africa. And the African Nutrition Society represents all Africa. There is another organ which is the Federation of African Nutrition Societies (FANUS). Every country has its society and through that Federation we can ask them and we go and make a programme for stimulating for a better participation and contribution in the Codex Committees.


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