The role of the Food Processing industry in food security

The food processing sector has a huge role to play in improving food security in Kenya and the region, argues Brent Wibberley, our Special Guest writer

The Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has defined four major dimensions that contribute towards food security. These involve the pillars of availability, accessibility, utilisation and the stability of the environment in which they function.

With a rural population of 77.48%, primarily small scale farmers, Kenya’s food security is impacted by its ability to grow its own food. As 82% of the land is arid or semi-arid and prone to drought, the population is vulnerable and frequently made food insecure.

Kenya’s large coastal regions, its majority arid land and dependence on local agricultural production also make it particularly sensitive to climate change.

The situation is compounded by a growing urban versus rural population which increases the dependency on others to produce food. 60% of urban residents live in slums whilst 3.4 million urban residents are currently food insecure.

Conflict and drought in neighbouring countries continues to see growing levels of refugees, who are dependent on food aid, as well as an HIV/AIDS rate of 6.4% that draws on resources and requires improvements in available nutrition.

With malnutrition levels as high as 33% and Kenya’s dependency on humanitarian aid continuing to grow, there exist fundamental challenges to addressing Kenya’s food security resilience. Food processing can play a pivotal role in addressing many of these challenges.

Within the food value chain, improvements to the food processing industry have the most significant multiplier effects. The health of the food processing industry goes a long way to determine the production of abundant good quality, nutritious and safe foods, which are readily available and affordable for consumers.

Processing foods is fundamental to prevention of losses following harvest and to bridge the gap between seasons; it is also crucial to maximizing utilization of the harvest, particularly during droughts and periods of poor production.

Beyond the production of food the industry supports the economy, creates expansion of other linkage industries and promotes beneficial infrastructure developments. The industry is the largest employer in the manufacturing sector; it is a major market for farmers and provides the staple finished products for consumers.

The industry is also pivotal in supporting the availability of nutritional products and in the implementation of fortification to staple foods.

Food processing does have an environment impact and this differs with the type of processing and the degree of mechanization. Food processing in general, however, is a lower contributor to environmental damage than both agricultural production and food distribution, and greater results can be achieved by addressing the full food system rather than only focusing at the processor level.

New technologies continue to improve efficiencies and lower the energy use and waste emissions from food processing; it also continues to expand utilization of by-products and the ability for some processors to generate their own energy from by-products.

Food aid to Kenya exists in long term programs feeding schools and clinics, as well as emergency relief for growing numbers of refugees and vulnerable groups in drought affected areas. The local food processing industry could better support the supply of food aid to vulnerable groups in Kenya.

Studies show that an average of 50% cost saving can be had by sourcing food aid products locally; it would also further contribute to the local economy and improve the food security outcome for Kenya. Greater dialogue is needed between Kenyan processors and food aid donors to understand the issues of compliance and the demand for products.

Whilst food aid is not a consistent market and processors should not create dependencies from the aid industry, there is opportunity for safely supporting longer programs (school feeding, HIV clinics, etc), introducing retail markets to nutritious supplementary foods and diversifying product range so that the infrastructure exists to respond to future crises.

Given that pastoralists make up a large proportion of Kenya’s vulnerable population; further research should be carried out into the use of animal feeds (primarily from food by-products and other agro-industries) as an alternative to food aid during periods of crises. This could reduce dependency on human food aid, reduce costs and preserve the livelihoods of these communities.

Regionally, Kenya is economically stronger than its neighbors and its food processing sector is larger, however, Kenya imports to supplement its staple foods, primarily maize and wheat. Kenya’s food processing industry is largest in the milling and beverages sectors. Most mills run below capacity due to poor supplies of raw material and competition from neighbouring countries.

Other important processing sectors include dairy and fruit and vegetable processing. These two sectors, though relatively strong in production, both incur unnecessary losses due to waste and poor quality management systems and could benefit from improvements in value addition and processing technology.

Opportunities for the Kenyan food processing industry to further support food security include:

  • Improved technology
  • Quality improvements
  • Opportunities for women
  • Product diversification
  • Food Aid markets
  • Fortification and supplementation
  • Animal feeds, and
  • Improved support services and linkages

The attainment of food security will require an integrated approach incorporating poverty reduction, food production, livelihoods, gender, the environment, climate change, technology, policy and socio-cultural behavior. The challenge will be to balance support and allow for greater efficiencies and cross sector linkages.

What is clear is that food processing is one such sector that provides for these efficiencies and cross cutting linkages, it is also a direct provider of food and nutrition and can improve the access, availability, affordability and stability of food

Brent Wibberley is the Regional Program Director/COP|SAFE|Techno Serve: He can be reached at

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Food Business Africa magazine.

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