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Africa is a big place. Covering more than 11 million square miles, it is the second-largest continent in the world, and home to over 700 million people. Made up of 54 countries, with over 1,000 official languages, Africa is generally considered to be the birthplace of human evolution. Yet, despite all of this cultural diversity, African cuisines have long eluded the shelves of U.S. supermarkets -until now.
Today, African specialty food is a category that has been gaining tremendous momentum across the United States. Many leading retailers, including Kroger, Publix, HEB, The Food Emporium, Jungle Jim’s, Harmon’s and Fairway Markets, have embraced the concept of African specialty foods, and are seeing the category thrive. As Michael Corsello, senior merchant for The Food Emporium, a banner of Montvale, N.J.-based A&P, said, “The products coming out of Africa today are beautiful, well-priced and marketable.” Additionally, distributors such as Kehe Foods, Tree of Life and DPI are keeping up with this trend by actively stocking full versions of the African specialty food section.
The African specialty foods program, dubbed “Taste of Africa,” was born out of a combined effort between Talier Trading Group (TTG), a West New York, N.J.-based specialty food development organization, and various international organizations led by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Today, this public and private partnership extends to over 13 countries in Africa, and consists of hundreds of government, non-government and private organizations that have joined forces to promote and develop the positive aspects of Africa.
The African specialty foods planogram offered by the program generally consists of a 4-foot section (4 feet wide and 6 feet high), and includes about 100 of the best-selling items in the African specialty foods program. Leading brands include Nando’s peri-peri sauces, Mrs. Ball’s chutneys, Gatto Estates coffee, Elephant Pepper grinders, Highland Tea Co. teas, Something South African cooking sauces, Vumarula juices, Honey Care Africa honey and Verlaque Fine Foods balsamic vinaigrettes. Thirteen African countries are represented as part of the African specialty foods program, while roughly 40 percent of the products include stem from South Africa. The products in the initial African specialty food program consist of exotic tastes tailored to the mass specialty market. Products like rooibos tea, Cape Malay curry, preserved lemons, peri-peri pepper marinades, boboti chutney and baobab jams are all indigenous to Africa, and all have the mass-market appeal so critical to a product’s success. The target consumer for this program is the higher-end specialty food shopper, though there is tremendous crossover between the African and British categories. In the United Kingdom, African cuisine is highly popular, second only to Indian as the ethnic category of choice.
Of course, one can’t talk about African specialty foods without realizing the tremendous impact this type of trade is having on the local populations. Despite Africa’s wealth of natural resources and cultural diversity, well over half of the population lives in extreme poverty. After decades of receiving international aid packages, what Africans really want and need so desperately is trade, a chance to show the world who they are and what they do so well. No other industry combines value-added trade with national branding the way that specialty food can. Most of the companies in the African specialty foods program have a social mission as part of their operations. Whether it’s Elephant Pepper’s wildlife conservation efforts or Honey Care Africa’s award-winning sustainable development model, these companies are working hard to ensure Africa has a successful and sustainable road ahead. As Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, senior economic advisor to the United Nations, said recently, “This program embodies all of the hopes for Africa.”
The future looks extremely bright for the African specialty foods category. In the United States, the popularity of African specialty foods is growing by leaps and bounds, based on the rising number of grocers now featuring the planogram. Retailers and distributors continue to adopt the concept, lured by the need to bring exotic excitement into their stores through new categories and the extensive marketing program surrounding “Taste of Africa.” On the African continent, groups like TTG are working round the clock to develop new product concepts and the sustainable business models that must accompany them to achieve long-term success.
Corsello of The Food Emporium says, “Our customers are becoming aware of what Africa is all about, and they love it!”