African Food Exports: Why A Ghanaian in the UK Lost A Lot Of Business

African Food Exports: Why A Ghanaian in the UK Lost A Lot Of Business

nahumThis is a guest post by Nahum Kidan, an Environmental Health Expert and Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England who is originally from Eritrea. Prior to entering academia, he worked as an Environmental Health Practitioner in UK local government in addition to engaging in private food safety consultancy work. Nahum’s post tells you about the challenges of African export businesses to comply with EU import regulations and about the very issues you need to be aware of when you start an African export business (or you are importing from Africa while residing in the West). 

A few years ago, when working in a food safety regulatory capacity in London, I came across a Ghanaian businessman who manufactured a product known as Kenkey, a staple dish in Ghana, Nigeria and other parts of West Africa, similar to a sourdough dumpling.  It is a fermented product usually made from maize and served as an accompaniment with stew and soup dishes.  His maize meal was sourced from Ghana, where an agent dealt with the export related side of business. From his large industrial unit in London, his team of staff mass produced Kenkey for supply to retailers and restaurants throughout London and the south of England.  Business was going well and the food business operator was looking to expand his operations and widen the appeal of his brand to the non-African market.  Then one day, disaster struck; routine microbiological and chemical sampling of his Kenkey revealed that his products were contaminated with a toxic substance; the result was the seizure and destruction of his manufactured stock in addition to several tonnes of maize meal being held at his industrial unit.  His economic losses were further compounded by damage in reputation as a product recall was announced resulting in every business he supplied being contacted to ensure his Kenkey products were taken off the market.

Fact is, that African export and import businesses that sell food to Europe and the West regularly lose significant revenue due to a lack of knowledge regarding food safety laws. So what happened in our story?

Know the risks

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The cause of this unfortunate turn of events was that the imported maize meal of the Ghanaian business man was contaminated with fungal toxins known as aflatoxinsAflatoxins are naturally occurring toxins produced by certain fungi, such as the mould Aspergillus; they contaminate many African dietary staples such as cereals, spices, oilseeds, groundnuts and dried fruit under certain conditions, such as dry conditions during planting, high moisture levels during harvest and inadequate drying and storage of crops post-harvest.  Though it is primary commodities which become contaminated with aflatoxins from mould growth, the toxins will persist in processed products such as peanut butter or Kenkey as the toxins are very stable and will thus remain unaltered by processing steps such as heating.  Human consumption of contaminated products can result in acute poisoning, known as aflatoxicosis, whilst chronic exposure over a period of time increases the risk of liver cancer.  High levels can be fatal; between 2004 and 2006, nearly 200 Kenyans died following the consumption of aflatoxin contaminated maize.

There are specific rules governing the import of foodstuffs from certain non-EU countries due to contamination risks posed by aflatoxins; for example, there are currently enhanced controls in relation to imports of groundnuts and peanut butter from Ghana and watermelon seeds from Nigeria.

Globally, about $1.2 billion in commerce is lost annually due to aflatoxin contamination, with African economies losing around $450 million each year due to lost trade.  Many countries, including all EU member states set legal limits for the maximum permissible level of aflatoxins in food products.  As such, aflatoxins are non-tariff barriers to international trade, since agricultural products that have more than the permissible levels of contamination are banned; products that do not meet the standards are either rejected at the border or rejected at some point along the distribution chain.

Your opportunities – let’s use sorghum as an example

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Sorghum, a popular cereal grain, is one of the most important cereal crops in the world, largely due to its drought tolerance and versatility as a food, animal feed and fuel.  The African continent produces approximately 1/3 of world sorghum, equating to 20 million tonnes per annum.  Its drought tolerance and other characteristics make it perfectly adapted to African climatic conditions.  In Africa, sorghum is processed into a wide array of traditional foods such as bread, porridge, dumplings and is also used in the beer production process.

But sorghum is now also gaining popularity in the West: The use of sorghum for human consumption has been on the rise in the United States and Europe, thanks to the gluten-free benefits it confers.  Some sorghum varieties are also high in antioxidants, which are believed to help lower the risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

It is not just cereal products which are in demand in Europe. The EU imports 40% of all of sub-saharan Africa’s agricultural exports, including nuts, tea, coffee and citrus fruits. Trade has been increasing rapidly for over a decade as the European Union has forged greater economic links with ACP states. With over 500 million inhabitants and 28 member states constituting the largest food importing bloc in the world, the EU is an attractive market for African exports.

However, strict sanitary and phytosanitary requirements present a barrier to many African companies wishing to export food products into the EU.  Recently, the EU rejected 2,000 tonnes of Cameroonian cocoa harvests due to high levels of chemicals caused by poor cocoa bean drying practices.

 If you are contemplating getting into the commercial export market in relation to food including sorghum and other cereal products, such as maize, flour and soya, it is vital you do your research on the food safety risks associated with your product in addition to understanding the food safety regulatory systems in your intended target market.


Regulations you should be aware of

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If you are considering getting into the business of exporting food of non-animal origin such as cereals into the EU or you are planning to expand, you need to ensure your products comply with EU food law or an equivalent standard. The quality of your product will directly depend on the production, harvest, and processing practices locally. The food hygiene conditions for imports are laid down in several parts of EU law and determining the rules surrounding a particular product can be complex.

Most non-animal food products from Africa can enter the EU through any port and are not subject to specific import conditions, pre-notification requirements or certification by the authorities in the African dispatch state.  However, certain food products from certain countries are deemed ‘high risk’ because they are considered to pose a known or emerging risk to public health and are thus subject to an increased level of official controls at the point of entry into the EU.  So it’s important that we source good quality, processed or unprocessed products for export which have been grown, handled, stored, processed and distributed in hygienic conditions, to ensure the viability of your business and to ensure that the reputation of African agricultural exports are not tainted.

In addition to satisfying the authorities of the safety of your product, the importer in the EU would need to be satisfied that your products were safe, of high quality and that you had robust safety and quality assurance systems in place to identify and manage any problems.  The importer in the EU would be responsible for any public health incidents or regulatory breaches associated with the sale of your product, unless they could prove that they were diligent and took reasonable steps to verify the safety of the imported products.  The fear of prosecution and reputational damage would ensure that any reputable importer would have stringent safety and quality requirements they expect you to meet which often go above and beyond national legal requirements.  For example, they may require regular laboratory testing for aflatoxins in susceptible products.

It is not possible to summarize all the legal requirements an exporter must consider within the scope of this article; though bear in mind, that other regulations exist which cover matters such as: product labeling, the use of additives and phytosanitary requirements for certain plant products.


Final thoughts and business tips


There are amazing opportunities to export food products from Africa, but you need to fully understand the regulatory requirements to successfully grow your business and mitigate risk. It is critical that any potential exporter researches their product thoroughly and understands the food safety regulatory systems in their target market.  Failure to do so may result in product seizures, lost income and reputational damage.  If you want to find out more, I suggest you visit the European Commission’s website, which offers advice to trading partners and individuals outside the EU looking to export food products into the world’s largest food trading bloc. Other countries will have similar information available online.

But I also see clear business opportunities for Africans to fill that gap as experts and consultants providing services or products that improve the compliance and capacities of African export businesses.

Further: more and more Africans, including some in the Diaspora who are returning home, are planning to use some land they have obtained through family bonds for agricultural production. It is crucial that you are aware of best farming practices to avoid contamination; this is particularly true if you are planning to sell your produce for export, but should also be more strictly followed for intra-African trade to safeguard public health.

Finally, from a sustainable development perspective: African governments need to ensure that a thriving export market does not price out ordinary Africans from access to safe and nutritious food supplies including those Africans who run businesses at national or regional markets.

Feel free to post your questions for Nahum below, or share other export stories that underline some of the problems shared in the insightful post above. 

And: This seems to be our week of guest posts! Number 3 in a single week and they are very popular, so if you have unique Africa business insights to share, please feel free to contact Africa Business JumpStart. Have a great week!

Please don’t forget: Know your market before making major decisions! You can make a step towards your goal TODAY by getting my E-book ‘How to JumpStart Your African Business’. Get it now or read more information about it here.


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Dr. Harnet
Dr. Harnet Bokrezion is the Founder of and co-author of the book '101 Ways to Make Money in Africa'. She coaches individuals and consults existing companies assisting them to make smart and strategic business decisions in Africa’s new emerging markets faster and more confidently. Dr. Harnet also regularly writes for the renowned DHL powered publication Get in touch to inquire how she can be of assistance to your own Africa business endeavors:

User Comments ( 17 )

  • Thank you Nahum for this insightful article!

    It appears many food exporters in Africa are unaware of the huge costs of non-compliance with food safety regulations in the West. Although you focused on the EU bloc in this article, the same issues arise in African exports to the US. Many of these guidelines and regulations change quite frequently that a dedicated information service may be required to protect African exporters from compliance and safety-related losses. I believe these losses can be prevented by a robust information sharing system.

    I did a quick search online to find any information/advisory services in this regard. Almost nothing came up. Most of the available information is dispersed and domiciled in foreign food safety/customs/government agency portals. Nothing indigenous to Africa.

    Here comes the interesting question: Who will provide this service? African governments? I’m not quite sure.

    We need people who understand how the export business works globally especially in trade with the EU and North America. We need people who understand the letter and spirit of the food safety regulations and other guidelines that affect African food exports. I suspect that entrepreneurs in the food export business will be willing to pay for such a service given the high cost and losses that ignorance can cause in this area.

    Who else is ready to advance this suggestion with concrete action?

    • Nahum Kidan

      Hi John-Paul,

      My response is in the message below; I started a new message rather than ‘replying’.

  • Nicky Callen

    Thanks Naz good article, I would like to think there are similar informative articles out there that african businesses here and abroad have access to with a good insight into the potential pitfalls of their market. It would be interesting to know if sampling of the products takes place at any stage of the processing so the aflatoxins can be indentified; and importantly whether the buyer can save themselves from some of the ‘horror’ stories mentioned in your article! Best wishes nicky

  • Tesfaldet Okubayes

    Dear Nahom,

    Thanks for the intersting article.

    I totally agree with you that African non- animal food exporters should increase their efforts to better understund the EU food saftey regulatory framework to get the maximum benefit of their comperative advantage in this area. However the Eu significant role towards improving the compliance capacity of African food exporters should be in place.

    • Nahum Kidan

      Dear Tesfaldet,

      Thanks for your feedback. How would you like the EU or US to improve the compliance capacity of African exporters? Do you mean by providing better guidance/information or do you think the sanitary standards are excessively strict?



      • Tesfaldet Okubayes

        Dear Nahom,

        Yes, providing better guidance and information can improve their capacity. EU or US should go beyond this and need to allocate fund to keep their partnership with the African food exporters. Providing capacity and technical assistance to the exporting countries institutions that deal with food quality and hygiene could play greater role to ease the problems. Initiatives of strengthening the capacity of safety assessment institutions at food exporting countries could help Africans to know the standard of their products pre-exporting. This could probable protect African food exporters from unbearable loses at ports and beyond. This can also help them to get used to the strict sanitary standards. In the long – term this should aim at Embracing the EU or US food safety standards at exporting countries.



  • Nahum Kidan

    Hi John Paul,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment; appreciated.. You are right, it will be a similar situation with exports to the USA. Most developed countries will have very similar sanitary and phytosanitary rules in place as they all tend to follow international Codex standards to prevent barriers to trade.

    You have hit the nail on the head; rules change frequently, as do countries/products on banned/restricted lists. It is also very true that the relevant information is not readily accessible, especially to SME businesses who can’t be expected to keep upto date with amendments in EU/US law 24/7.

    The rules are much more stringent when dealing with products of animal origin such as fisheries. I totally agree with you that we need a better information sharing service for African exporters. In relation to your final paragraph, it is an important project and something which ‘someone’ will surely undertake in due course. You would have hoped governments would fulfill this function, but no, a vacuum remains for us to fill.

    Sanitary rules are but one barrier to a successful export business, but what can we do? One problem at a time.


  • Nahum Kidan

    Hi Nicky,

    Thanks for the comment. In relation to aflatoxins, sampling alone will not solve the underlying problem, it only tells us if there is a problem. It will come down to good agricultural practices…alot of research is being done in this area at the moment as it is a complex issue. The African Union Commission set up the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA) to coordinate continental action in tackling the problem. As well as being an economic issue, it is a public health and food security issue.

    Unless the product was on a high risk list, it would not have to be sampled unless the importer specifically requested it. Many practical problems with sampling from a big batch, as contamination is rarely spread evenly throughout. If I was personally importing a product susceptible to aflatoxin contamination I might decide to undertake my own sampling to cover myself

  • Hiriti Hagos

    Hi Nahum, it’s very thoughtful and a lesson to be article. Well-done and keep up all the good job, am so proud of you!

    • Nahum Kidan

      Thank you Hiriti, I appreciate it very much

  • Merhawie

    Great article Nahum! I was wondering, do you know if the EU or US have “one-stop” shops for distributing information about which branches to approach. I understand that the US has the FDA, however finding information per item is … challenging to say the least. Are there any resources, that you know of, that are essentially “how-to’s”?

    • Nahum Kidan

      Hi Merhawie,

      Thank you for your comment.

      With regards to EU controls, information regarding sanitary standards/restrictions for products of animal origin and products of non-animal origin can be find at the European Commission’s website.

      If you are importing into the EU, each member state will have their own agencies and administrative systems to handle imported food controls, so depending which country you are importing to, you would need to contact the appropriate agency (the quality of the guidance will depend on which of the 28 member states you are targeting).

      If you are importing into the UK for example, the UK Food Standards Agency website ( provides guidance and contact details for importers. As you pointed out, it can be tricky to find and interpret all the relevant information on the website unless you are clear of what you need to know.

      I am not as familiar with US systems, though as you pointed out, the FDA website would probably provide the relevant information (though I’m not sure how user friendly it is).

      In reality, there aren’t too many restrictions on plant products, the standards are much more stringent in relation to animal products as they pose a greater risk to public health, For example, if you wanted to manufacture dried meat/fish in Africa for export, then you would need to undergo a potentially lenghty approval process to ensure that food safety standards and management procedures were at least equivalent to EU standards.

      A challenge for you: Go on the Europa website and see if you can find out how many and the type of food establishments in Eritrea which are approved for export to the EU? It would be great if you also let me know how user friendly the site is.



  • Awet Solomon

    It’s really remarkable article Nahum. I believe these regulatory compliance article will be so helpful to African countries, including Eritrea. I recommend this should have to be posted on website so that anyone interested can easily access it and aware prior to exporting.

    • Nahum Kidan

      Dear Awet,

      Thank you for the comment and I’m glad you emphasised the importance of regulatory compliance in the context of African development. As we all know, Africa is in a phase of massive GDP growth, so questions of environmental sustainability, sustainable food systems etc need to be debated far more widely.



  • Loku Ranasinghe

    Hi Naz, this is a very thought-provoking article. As I understand it you are pinpointing 2 issues- the lack of awareness of the EU regulatory requirements and lack of research on good agricultural practices. I think introducing the great opportunities in the European markets for African food businesses, as you have done in your article, is a good starter. Along with this if a “Clearing House” mechanism could be set up to exchange information on the regulations, good practice and success stories this should both encourage new entrants in to the market and help those existing exporters. Once the gathered information is channeled downstream to the agricultural sector this should form the base for good farming practice. I think with this article you have made a good start sharing the story of the Ghanian ; mistakes will inform and successes will inspire. When more and more African businesses get involved, governmental and inter-governmental involvement would inevitably follow. I know it sounds like a terribly slow process- that is because it is! But never fear , you have already made the start! Keep up the good work.



  • Thanks for your articles.

    I will like to know what it take to export african products e.g garri, melon etc from Nigeria to Uk in Kg and how or where I can get the price list of product sold over there.

    I await your response soonest.

    Thank you.

  • Johnnetta

    Honestly, whenever it comes to Africans trying to successfully manage or do business with Europe and the US, there always seems to be negativity thrown out there about what the Africans are trying to manage and do successfully. Gestures such as, lack of knowledge, contaminated foods,health risks ect….Are all just ways to keep them from prospering globally by ruining there reputation so that no one will do business with them. If the food was so contaminated….why haven’t the Africans died off from this? Such as the Kenkey” that guy who created the dish is still living. It’s like crabs in a bucket, they continue to step on top of Africans and African Americans to stay on top themselves. It’s real…