Fermented foods are characterized by the transformation of raw materials by microorganisms into foods that are generally safe, highly nutritious and sensory attractive with an increased shelf-life. In Africa, traditional fermented foods are mainly produced and sold locally on a small scale by women. So far efforts to combat hunger and malnutrition in Africa have largely overlooked the potential of the improvement of local food processing and optimization of the concerned value chains.
And that is really a missed opportunity, says Valentina Materia, researcher in the Business Management and Organisation (BMO) group. She expects that making upgraded fermented foods the subject of efforts to stimulate women entrepreneurship will have a direct effect on food and nutrition security by making improved fermented foods more available, as well as an indirect effect through income generation to support livelihoods.
Materia is involved in a project that focuses on traditional fermented foods in three African countries: Akpan, a traditional Beninese non-alcoholic fermented cereal-based beverage - locally also known as a vegetable yoghurt; Mabisi, a relatively firm, slightly sour, non-alcoholic beverage made from raw milk - consumed at home and sold at local markets in Zambia; and Mahewu, a mixed maize/sorghum cereal-based fermented non-alcoholic beverage from Zimbabwe. ‘These products are relatively easy to make and - when made properly - they are safe and healthy’, says Materia. ‘Further enhancing the properties of these foods and scaling up production with sufficient food safety safeguards can contribute enormously to combating malnutrition, empowering women and strengthening communities and livelihoods.’
In the project researchers from five WUR groups* are working with research institutes, NGO’s, government organisations and companies in those three countries**. Valentina Materia leads de entrepreneurship component of the project. ‘Small-scale fermentation activities represent an important economic opportunity for women’, she says. ‘Entry barriers are low, start-up costs are low, no possession of particular assets is required, and it is combinable with domestic responsibilities. Our support for the upscaling of production and the development of local value chains of these traditional culturally embedded foods will have a positive impact towards sustainable small-holder based food systems in Africa.’
Materia points out: ‘The contribution of women to local, national and global food security and economic growth is underestimated, although they act as key economic agents of change in their rural communities. The contribution these fermentation activities can make to the livelihoods of women and the marginalized is crucial: with appropriate training and access to inputs, the most marginalized in society can still increase their independence and achieve empowerment through generation of income. I hope that we can later expand our results to other traditional fermented foods and African food systems in general.