One area where we need to grow our skills as a productive nation is in producing and packaging things better. When we see pictures of supermarkets from overseas countries, they appear to have many more varieties of food than we do. But that is not exactly correct. The difference is that they have developed their traditional foods to the point where they can have several varieties of the same food in diverse enticing packages, using science and technology.
An apple fruit, for example, could appear as a juice drink in one package, in combination with other fruits in yet another package and can also be packaged as filler in pastries and so on. In Nigeria, we also have many kinds of foods but we have not gone further than the traditional uses to which we have always applied them. For example, our mangoes are still almost eaten as fruits and can hardly be found in other packages, although we have more mango drinks these days, assuming that the fruit concentrates are not imported. Our staples are used mainly as foo-foo, and are rarely mixed to achieve nutritional and other benefits. Asides that, because they are produced via subsistence methods, just like our farming methods, they have low shelf lives.
This means that there is a lot of work to be done by our scientists in the food industries to develop and utilise our local foods, some of which are going extinct. A project review session on foods that I witnessed at the Federal Institute of Industrial research Oshodi demonstrates that the science community is warming up to respond to this challenge in a big way. Presided over by Prof. Gloria Elemo, a nutritional biochemist, it was an inspiring experience listening to young scientists presenting their research efforts to upgrade the status of our indigenous legumes and other foods, upscaling their processing methods while introducing improvements on taste and the keeping life of the products as well as nutritional fortification. Even some foods that are nearing extinction on our tables like bambara nuts and water yams were not excluded. They had to defend the usefulness of their study to the nation, their work plan and proposed grant with which to pursue their objectives.
Some of the findings have been ongoing for years and are about to leave the research desks for demonstration levels where they can be presented to the public and investors can pick them up for adoption. Astute investors need to pay attention to science in this dispensation while shopping for business ideas. Our many traditional products would create great businesses when they are commercialised using better production processes and technologies. Agricultural production and food processing are areas where Nigeria has comparative advantage that can readily be raised to competitive levels through requisite research and development efforts.
The industrial utilisation of our indigenous plants would not only add variety to the traditional Nigerian tables, but will also elevate the status of the growers of these crops, thereby contributing to the economic and food security needs of Nigerians, including rural dwellers.
One of the areas where these scientific efforts would make quick impact is in the elevation of the nutrition status of Nigerians, especially children, through the development of protein products from plant sources to augment dairy products. This is because some people are allergic to dairy; also, elderly people with chronic diseases do not thrive well on animal proteins. The introduction of affordable and readily available plant-derived alternatives to dairy milk is, therefore, one area where science intervention is needed to close a nagging nutritional gap.
Milk is important for the healthy development of children and adults because of its protein and calcium content. Almost all the milk consumed by weaned children and adults in Nigeria are derived from cattle. However, Nigeria does not produce enough cow milk and so imports at least 70 per cent of its dairy milk needs at an estimated annual cost of $1.3bn. This, therefore, makes milk expensive and beyond the reach of her mostly indigent population.
Interestingly, there are local milk products made from the sap of grains and nuts, called ‘kunu’ in local parlance, that are enjoyed in the rural areas. They may not equal the nutritional composition of milk but may even have some other more useful components. Kunu from soybeans, tigernuts (aya) and fonio (acha) may very well contain more useful nutritional constituents than we yet know but scientists at FIIRO may soon tell us.
Beyond our local needs, contemporary health fad and eating correctness spell that people now eat less of animal-derived foods in favour of foods from plant sources. This is a lifestyle bent that the astute entrepreneur should take advantage of to unearth an area of cache. Nuts, be they cocoanuts, groundnuts, cashew nuts, almonds, etc, are prized sources of nutrition with health benefits that complement their usefulness as foods and they are in high demand abroad.
Standardised forms of our local milks derived from our grains, legumes and nuts can help Nigeria clinch a share of the global market for dairy alternative drinks which is expected to surpass $11.4bn this year. This is one area where science and entrepreneurship should meet to make Nigeria achieve food security and richer through export.
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