In this interview, Kojo Brifo, Managing Director of Freddy Hirsch Nigeria and West Africa speaks on the food flavors industry in Africa, the impact of the Ukraine/Russian war on food security in Africa, and the company’s partnership with Symrise to improve food innovation.

1.            What are the patterns of flavors you see across Africa? Who likes what, and why?

Food forms a very essential part of the African culture. Food is not merely a source of nutrition and energy. It is a way of life, constantly bringing people together. Every African gathering is incomplete without local delicacies and beverages. Various cultures on the continent have cuisines that are peculiar to them and are handed over from generation to generation.

People love to associate with food preferences from their roots or that they identify with. Hence, innovative food manufacturers like ourselves, now promote the local use of flavors to create authentic food input or output that can meet the needs of their consumers. The food industry is ever-evolving, handing out not just only local flavor but also global flavor. In some cases, the local flavor is incorporated into global cuisine to give the consumer a sense of familiarity, and tradition. This kind of mix could be described as Afro-fusion/global fusion.

The ever-growing urbanization, rising middle class, food migration, love for adventure, exposure through books, media, and traveling around the world is a driver of the creation of global exotic flavors, that retain local tastes, within global foods.

Today, various Afro-fusion/global fusions can be seen across Africa. The American Barbecue, which is meat, cooked over an open fire has become popular in Africa, evolving with its preference for African chili spices. In South Africa, families retain the American-style Barbecue as the main meal in Braai which is the gathering of family and friends around a grill to celebrate any type of occasion. The Braai takes them back to the days when their forefathers would gather around an open fire after a hunt to enjoy themselves.

The use of curry powder in African meals reflects the Indian influence on the continent. Curry powder is a blend of aromatic Indian spices that brings warm and exotic flavor to cuisines. Curry powder is widely known and used in many African homes and acts as an ingredient in stews, soups, meat broth, marinades, and vegetables amongst other meals. We have added some authentic twist to Africanize the flavors by addition of fried or roasted elements of coriander, cumin, and other spices. It delivers a unique profile similar to home cooking that gives a distinct African taste.

The French herb de Provence which traditionally includes thyme, basil, rosemary, tarragon, savory, marjoram, oregano, and bay leaf has also found its way into African pots giving meals deep flavors. The French herb de Provence complements well with pepper soup spices.

The Mexican burrito is a flour tortilla filled with a variety of ingredients. This meal can be customized to suit the consumer’s taste. The Mexican burrito has been localized using flavored authentic jollof rice as a core ingredient and is a popular main meal or snack in South Africa and Kenya. Pasta has also become an important staple in West African kitchens, either cooked plain, stir-fried, or eaten with tomato sauce. Local sauces such as ofada and Jollof sauces are used to elevate the pasta taste in local dishes.

Technology has played a huge impact in identifying the different patterns of flavor that exist in Africa. The use of various social media platforms has helped us to identify top flavors embraced by customers, chefs, and consumers. Others have been through word of mouth from industry experts, tradeshows, and other trade publications.

2.            What flavors are unique, and what flavors are more general?

Every flavor is unique, though some are more localized than others. There are mainstream flavors and trending flavors. Mainstream flavors will be the flavors that have been popular over time, such as the standard BBQ, chicken flavor, vanilla, and chocolate, among others. Trending flavors, however, are those that are evolve, as a result of food migration, such as Curry mustard, wasabi, sweet and sour Chilli, Peanut Ginger, fermented flavors and Szechuan.

Globalization and authenticity have become key in flavor development. Flavor creation and combination depend on a lot of factors such as age, people, health or nutritional needs, location trends, etc. Creating flavor to capture the older populace would mean paying attention to its salt composition. Also, flavor targeted to people with immense love for peppery foods, like the South-Westerners of Nigeria, would have more chili composition.

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted people to pay close attention to their health and nutritional needs. Consumers now look for healthy foods that contribute to their health and wellness. Ginger flavor has become an important spice in both savory and sweet products in Africa, given its anti-oxidizing power to prevent stress and damage to the body’s DNA makeup. More people are consuming healthy spices such as turmeric and fenugreek, to improve their well-being and maintain their physical and spiritual well-being.

Flavor manufacturers are innovating new flavors that give experimental pleasure, reflecting the quest for adventure, novelty, and indulgence. More consumers are looking for food that expresses their individuality and uniqueness. This is what has led to the rise in savory and sweet combinations such as sweet chili, sweet cheddar flavor, and spicy cinnamon.

3.            You have tasted the major Jollof: Nigerian, Ghanaian, Senegalese. What’s behind the tastes?

West Africa is very dynamic, and has multiple cultures, with uniquely different foods. Among the variety of African Cuisines, Jollof rice is one of the most popular staples, thanks to its seductive aroma, deep-red color, spicy flavor and position as an iconic dish, with massive regional significance across West Africa.

The ongoing smack wars between Ghana and Nigeria also contribute to its popularity. The Jollof story has been incredible in West African history as it depicts an example of how our individual cultural journeys has impacted the flavor diversity of the Jollof. If you take the jollof in Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Liberia and Cameroun, you will observe unique differences in the taste, attributable to the ingredients available in each country and the mode of preparation.

For instance, the Nigeria Jollof is made with a unique type of rice which is the long grain parboiled rice seasoned with paprika, curry, a high amount of chili, bay leaves, and enhanced bouillon cubes or crayfish. Another unique characteristic is its smokiness. Nigeria Jollof has a mild level of tomato but applies a longer cooking process that produces its smokiness flavor. Initially, this cooking process was most common among Jollof prepared at parties with firewood but now, people have found a way to incorporate the smoky flavor without necessarily cooking with firewood.

The Ghanaian Jollof, on the other hand, makes use of basmati rice, which does not require parboiling, prepared with tomato stew, meat stock, and local spices such as hot peppers, ginger, and onions. Ghanaian Jollof has a higher level of tomato flavor relative to the Nigerian Jollof due to their love for tomatoes. The higher level of tomato composite makes the Ghanian Jollof less spicy than the Nigerian Jollof. The Ghanian Jollof has a distinctive burnt flavor which comes from the reaction of the pot with the rice making authentic and delicious jollof rice.

While the biggest jollof wars are between these two countries, the origin of jollof is Senegal and Gambia. Senegalese Jollof takes a different twist, as it is prepared with broken rice with fish as the protein, vegetables, and a high amount of tomato and caramelized onion. The addition of palm oil to the base of the cooking pan, also gives the dish a crusty edge.

A key ingredient that features in these countries’ dishes is seasonings. Seasonings heighten the flavor of cuisines and creating it needs that extra attention. The technical teams of Freddy Hirsch and Symrise, are enabling the use of state-of-the-art technology and a global flavor library, to tap into the pulse and valuable insights from African customers, to meet the unique taste preferences of the regional market, and develop competitive solutions, in jollof and other culinary applications, as well as bakery, confectionery, and dairy.

Through extensive gastronomy research and working with the traditional cooking process, we have been able to develop commercial seasonings and flavor that would complement the taste of Jollof rice in each country, while preserving the traditional tastes.

4.            The Russian-Ukraine crisis has impacted global food prices, especially for flour, etc. How has this impacted the African market?

Obviously, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis has negatively impacted the world considering the contribution of both countries to global food and energy. While Russia is among the world’s top energy suppliers, Ukraine is known as the bread basket of Europe.

Together, both countries account for 29% of the world’s total wheat exports making them the 3rd largest global exporter of wheat. Also, they both account for 19% of the world’s total corn exports while Ukraine provides the globe with about 80% of sunflower exports.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected the production and disrupted the free flow of these products to the rest of the world, thus affecting the availability and price of these products. Africa depends on wheat to make staples such as noodles, pasta, and flour for bread, and other pastries, amongst others. Also, corn is used to make different African meals.

This has elevated food prices as wheat and corn form an integral part of African cuisine. Also, corn is an essential input for poultry feeds, which is needed to breed poultry. This has pushed the pricing of different food products for consumers.

A crate of eggs, for instance, now goes for over two thousand Naira. The scarcity of sunflower oil has pushed the prices of its substitutes, such as palm oil and vegetable oil, higher owing to the limited supply of the former. Recently, Indonesia, one of the world’s largest palm oil exporters, considered placing a ban on the exportation of crude palm owing to the increase in demand for palm oil due to limited substitutes.

Russia supplies the world with 17% and 15% of potash and nitrogenous fertilizer. A limited supply of these fertilizers has negatively impacted the agricultural sector given its importance in growing produce. A limited supply of fertilizer translates to higher prices of available fertilizers. This burden is then passed to consumers in form of higher prices of farm produce. This is inevitable for consumers as food is a necessity for survival.

Russia is the 3rd largest producer of crude oil and the 2nd largest producer of gas. The economic sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine have limited the supply of global oil and gas, thus elevating energy prices. Higher energy prices translate to higher cost of transportation that is needed to get produce from farm to fork, higher cost of storage (freezing,) and higher operational costs for food businesses in terms of running generations. All of these, when combined with the macro-economic issues affecting countries like Nigeria, have kept food prices elevated, and impaired the region’s ability to ensure food security.

5.            Speaking of food security, how can Africa achieve this ?

Between 2020 and 2022, global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis have brought to the fore the challenge of low food security which is peculiar to the African continent. Africa must improve its food security by becoming sustainable and less dependent on other countries for its staples. Rwanda is leading the charge as Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s President is investing a million USD for the exploration and cultivation of wheat.

Digital technology has found its way into other sectors presenting itself as a key tool for sustaining businesses. This truth was unveiled in 2020 when the world went on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After the ease of the lockdown, the “new normal” prompted businesses to become technologically innovative with their operations.

The recent climate change also poses a big threat to food cultivation, hence, to boost agricultural productivity and profitability, digital technology should be embraced in both cultivation and harvesting. It shouldn’t stop here. More digital platforms should be available where farmers can sell their produce locally and internationally at a competitive price.

Farmers should have access to adequate funding. Government should be supportive of the agricultural sector by protecting the sector from unhealthy foreign competition while providing agricultural funding. Nigeria has over 10 food items that cannot access foreign exchange (FX) from the official source. This means that sourcing FX from the parallel market will make such food imports very expensive. Also, Nigeria has various intervention funds at a single-digit interest rate, targeted at the agricultural sector such as the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme (ABP), the Accelerated Agriculture Development Scheme (AADS), Commercial Agriculture Credit Scheme (CACS), Paddy Aggregation Scheme (PAS), amongst others. Private-Public partnerships should be encouraged to provide farmers with affordable loans.

Gone are the days when farming was for just the elderly or rural dwellers. Youths should also be encouraged to take up farming. Youths are more digitized hence the inclusion of digital technology into farming would boost overall agricultural productivity. Farmers especially agricultural exporters should be properly incentivized to encourage more agricultural activities.

Another challenge to food security is heightened insecurity, especially in food-producing areas. Rising insecurity in Africa has deterred both local and foreign agricultural investments. Also, insecurity halts the production of produce and disrupts the supply of this product. To achieve food security across the continent, governments need to tackle insecurity.

6.            You announced a partnership with Symrise; what is the focus on that partnership?

Our partnership with Symrise focuses on the development, launch, and commercialization of transformational food products: general seasoning, bouillon meat, snacks, and instant noodles. It harnesses the flavor technology platforms of our two companies, to deliver authentic regional and hyperlocal African flavors and ingredients. Symrise AG, a global multibillion-dollar fragrances, care, flavor and nutrition supplier with >10% market share and presence in 100+ countries, has global presence, while Freddy Hirsch Nigeria, a leading West African manufacturer of ingredients and flavors, has local insights.

Africa’s projected population of 3billion people by 2050 presents a large market for food and nutrition globally. The global flavor and fragrance market is forecasted to reach US$36 billion in 2022 with Africa expected to play one of the biggest growth opportunities. This partnership allows us to tap into this demand and accelerate flavor development across West Africa, increase the creativity of customized flavors, help our customers attain speed to market, and enhance their operational agility.


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