Food processing firm urges government to encourage fruit, vegetable farmers

In order to help reduce post-harvest losses, Ravi Hemnani, group chief executive, Primlaks Group, a food processing and packaging company, in this interview with Osa Victor Obayagbona, says the individually quick frozen (IQF) method has a distinct advantage, adding that it will reduce 40 percent post-harvest losses of perishable produce. Excerpts

What is the Sympli brand about?
The Sympli brand is a brand of individually quick frozen (IQF) fruits and vegetables. We have 10 products that we are currently getting ready to launch in Nigeria before Christmas. We are looking at yam, yam fries, yam chunks, pineapple, mango, papaya, unripe and ripened plantain (the ripe one is what we know locally as ‘dodo’). We also have ‘tatase’, ‘sombo’, ‘atarodo’, which are the three African chillies. All of these products fall under the Sympli brand. We call it Sympli because it basically signifies that these products are as close to their natural state as possible and they are very convenient for usage at home. We’re catering both to the local and international markets. Internationally, we have a lot of Nigerians and West Africans who are in the Diaspora. They all miss the products that they used to have at home, that is why we say Sympli is ‘delicious like home.’ They can eat these products even when they are abroad.

How do you guarantee steady supply of raw materials, which is critical to your production activities?
This is a major challenge that we face. It is the reason it also took us nearly three years of research to start the factory. We had to go all over the country to meet with farmers who can supply on a regular basis; we have made a few partnerships with different farmers who will be our source of supply. The advantage that we have as a company in terms of our sourcing is that we are not looking to source just one product, we are looking to source several products. So, for the farmer, the advantage is that they will have continuous income because at the time of harvesting certain items they will be able to sell, then when that product is not in season, another one of their products will be in season. So we have a lot of advantage in terms of our sourcing but the challenge we face is that we don’t yet see fruits and vegetables being commercially farmed in Nigeria in large mechanised farms. This is something that we currently are working on and we would like to see that fruit and vegetable farming is encouraged by government in the country.

Why choose the individually quick frozen (IQF) process?
The individually quick frozen (IQF) process has an advantage in that once the product is frozen bacterial decay stops. We freeze down to minus 40 degrees Celsius and store at below minus 18 degrees Celsius, which also means that the shelf life of the product is longer. The product can stay for over 18 months in their frozen condition. Once you freeze the product in IQF format, the nutrients are locked in and you don’t lose them again. With IQF, you pluck the vegetable as close to its ripe state as possible. When a plant is on the vine or in the tree, it takes all its nutrients from the soil, so the later you pluck the fruit or vegetable the more nutrient the fruit or vegetable will have inside. Once you freeze the products, those nutrients are locked in.
This is different from taking it when it’s fresh. When you buy fresh, you pluck the fruit or vegetable unripe from the tree because they need time to get to the market, they need time to display the product and they need time to let the product sit in the house where it will continue to ripen. But while the ripening is going on in fresh products, it is no longer connected to the soil and so the nutrients are not being taken. We believe that IQF has a distinct advantage. Most importantly, it can help reduce the 40% post-harvest loss. We face a problem today in Nigeria where we have fantastic quality of fruits and vegetables, some of which have the best quality in the world. The problem is that after harvest, we do not have the required means of storage. The IQF factory is novel because once the product is frozen you do not have continued spoilage. This is why we went into IQF.

How do you hope to tap into the plan of several state governments to diversify their economic resource base?
We are ready to work with state governments and we are ready to work with farmer out-growers schemes. What we look for is that whichever state government is looking to partner with us in the growing of fruits and vegetables will have certain organisation. For example, there is an international organisation called USAID which partnered state governments in the production of sesame, sorghum and cassava. These products were taken up in a scheme called Market 1 and Market 2. You will notice that fruits and vegetables were not included in that scheme. The beauty of having a partner like USAID working with the state government is that they will go and train the farmers. It is not easy for a company like ours, which is focused on the production, processing, marketing and distribution aspects to be involved at the point of training thousands of farmers. Ideally, we need a USAID type of organisation to step in between the factory, like the Primlaks Group and the state government that wants to develop their farmers. This in-between organisation will help to train thousands of farmers and ensure that they produce vegetables and fruits of the right specifications: size, quality of ripeness and continuous inflow of the farm produce that we need.

What made you to settle for the various Sympli product categories?
When we were trying to choose what products to go for, we looked at a full range of fruits and vegetables. We conducted studies in modern trade, we looked at supermarkets, we asked customers and we got a feeling of what customers wanted and what was available. Based on this, we chose the products that we currently are focused on, that is, yam fries, yam chunks, pineapple, mango, papaya, unripe and ripened plantain (‘dodo’) and chillies: ‘tatase’, ‘sombo’, ‘atarodo’. The advantage of these products and what we are excited about is that they are novel. When you go to supermarkets, what you see are products in their fresh form, not in processed forms like Sympli.
As people get busier everyday, with fathers and mothers being both working parents in order to improve their livelihoods, nobody, including bachelors, has time to get home late from work to buy 4kg pieces of yam and start cutting and peeling them when they can go to supermarkets and buy ready made Sympli products that they can put in the cooker and after a few minutes be ready for dinner. We think that the products will be patronised by our range of customers.

Who are your primary market targets?
We are not eliminating any segment at this point because Sympli is a new product. We will launch locally in Nigeria and we will be catering to the growing middle class who wants convenience. At the same time, we will be targeting the international market because of the large population of Africans in the Diaspora who would like to still enjoy the fruits from home. If you take, for instance, plantain and want to ship it abroad, it will continue to oxidise and turn brown and eventually it will spoil. But if you take the same plantain through the IQF process, you can still enjoy it several months later. This opens a whole range of market opportunities for people abroad, not only for Africans, but for the Caribbeans, Asians and other nationalities who all enjoy these products.

What incentives are you giving to farmers to encourage them to grow more fruits and vegetables?
Whenever we talk to farmers, what encourages them is that we are ready to buy a range of products. Quite often what you see when you are running a farm is that you want to focus on the farming side. When you know you have a customer who is ready to pick your products, you have ready uptakes and you already know the specifications you have to produce. More than that you are not depending on just one product because the company you are looking to deal with, like Venus Packaging and Processing Ltd, a member of the Primlaks Group, can buy a full range of products. There thus is plenty of incentives for a farmer to want to partner with Venus.
Besides, they know that our parent company, the Primlaks Group, has been in Nigeria since 1971, and has been running the marathon with the government and people of Nigeria. The farmers have confidence in us. When they see our infrastructure, the team on ground and our huge investment, they know they are dealing with straight forward people and are thus ready to make requisite investment on their own side. It then becomes a win-win-win partnership for the farmer, Venus Processing and Nigeria in terms of job creation, export earnings and these foods being sold locally.

How would you describe your experience at the recently concluded 2013 ANUGA world food expo in Cologne, Germany?
The ANUGA 2013 world food show, the biggest in the world, was something amazing for us. We were the only company from Nigeria. Imagine this: there were 7,000 international exhibitors and Venus Packaging and Processing Ltd was the only one from Nigeria. We felt very proud and at our stand we proudly proclaimed ‘Product of Nigeria.’ We had a lot of people who came to our stand to see the products on display from Nigeria. We never had a dull moment at our cooking station, as visitors came to have a taste of Sympli products: pineapple, yam fries, dodo as well as the chilli sauce: ‘atarodo’, ‘sombo’ and ‘tatase.’
The yam fries were very popular with the visitors who were attracted by the smell and taste of the products as well as by their international standard packaging. The pineapples were taken even in their frozen state like guilt-free desserts, as they were both healthy and sweet. Our stand was never quiet. We also got a lot of business enquiries. We were highly encouraged, especially considering that the ethnic food segment, to which foods from West Africa, India and the Caribbeans, among others, belong, is the fastest growing food segment in the market. ANUGA 2013 was a special outing for us and it gave us the confidence that we are on the right track.

What about the cost of the products?
You have to always cost products competitively. If too high, people will not be encouraged to buy. But you also have to put enough of a margin that will ensure that the factory will continue to grow. So, we will ensure fair pricing. The official launch of Sympli products in Nigeria will be in time for the Christmas.