Extra nutritious baby porridge and a breakfast porridge for adults with lots of protein and fibre are two new African plant products being tested by Nofima. The InnoFoodAfrica project aims to help remove bottlenecks in the African food industry, make better use of the raw material, and make production itself more sustainable.

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  Oddny Johnsen, Krysspress

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“Part of the delivery in the project, for example, is to make nutritious food for children to eat during their first year of life. This is to reduce infant mortality and malnutrition”, explains Morten Sivertsvik, Research Director at Nofima’s Stavanger department.

Scientist Trond Løvdal is the project manager for Nofima’s part of InnoFoodAfrica, and the food institute is participating in the EU project with its expertise related to process optimisation, sensory science and consumer behaviour. In Stavanger, the taste and consistency of the extra nutritious porridge mixtures are being tested, and they are looking at processes to preserve the nutrients in the food in the best possible way. Consumer and market research is being carried out at Ås.

23 partners 

The InnoFoodAfrica project is funded through the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme and consists of 18 African and five European partners. The eight countries represented in the project are Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda, Norway, Finland, France and Belgium. Nofima has expertise that is sought after in a European context, and is happy to contribute to the development of sustainable food systems in other countries. 

The main goal of the project is to make the entire plant-based production process – from the farmer growing the crop until a product reaches the consumer – more sustainable, safe and resource efficient. 

The challenges in the African food industry are different from the ones Nofima has worked on in the past. The main difference is the lack of ice and cooling as a method of increasing the shelf life of food. This project focuses a lot on improving harvesting and storage practices. At the same time, environmentally friendly, bio-based packaging solutions are being developed that replace plastic but also provide a long shelf life. 

“We are also looking at various methods to make better use of the residual raw material from food production. For example, this includes the skin from plantains, sorghum and sweet potatoes”, explains Sivertsvik.  

Meeting online

The project started around the same time as the corona pandemic, and the direct contact and transfer of experience has mostly taken place via Zoom and WhatsApp. 

“This is a very exciting project in every sense of the word”, says Paula A. Varela-Tomasco. She is a senior scientist within the field of consumer and sensory research, and works at Nofima’s Ås department. 

“In collaboration with our South African partner, we have created a sensory and consumer science training programme which was delivered online. Approximately 100 people from all over Africa participated in most of these classes. Personally, I have learned a lot about the enormous differences that can be found on the African continent – not only between different countries, but also within each country”, she says. 

For example, many of the consumers of whom the scientists would like to hear opinions cannot read or write. 

“Therefore, we should develop testing procedures that take this into account. In addition, the material we will use must be translated into many languages. More than 80 languages are spoken in Ethiopia alone, and the country has six official languages. There are also major cultural differences to take into account. We have really understood how little we Western people know about African reality”, says the senior scientist. 

In Ethiopia, for example, they follow a completely different calendar from the rest of the project partners, and are now in 2014. War has also broken out in this country while the project has been running. 

“On one occasion, our partners had to postpone their online presentation because there were so many conflicts in the area and repeated cuts to the internet connection”, says Varela-Tomasco. 

Open platform

The senior scientist is impressed by the focus and not least the competence of her African colleagues. 

“Our academic research partners are extremely skilled, but are not so well known because they have not published their works or accessed networks in our part of the world. Generally speaking, it is very useful for Nofima to collaborate with African researchers. There is an exciting exchange of knowledge between all the project partners”, she explains. 

During the course of 2022, Varela-Tomasco hopes that the project participants will be able to make more trips in order to better facilitate the transfer of experience in regular lectures and seminars – instead of having to rely on internet meetings. 

The InnoFoodAfrica project supports the establishment of a pan-African collaboration within research and development.

One of the goals is to create an open innovation platform where newly developed technology can be shared, communication can be improved and the transfer of experience can be facilitated. 

The technology developed in the project must be easy to commercialise, i.e. that the project raises the Technology Readiness Level (TRL). The TRL scale indicates how close the technology is to being put into use. The scale ranges from 1 to 9, and the TRL in this project is between 5 and 8. 

This provides African food actors with access to new methods, new technology and more knowledge about sensory and consumer research. As a result, they will be able to experience even more success when it comes to plant-based product innovations and systems for more sustainable food production. 

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