Nigerian mothers, who had trouble feeding their choosy babies and inadvertently turned to manufacturers of indigenous baby foods have shared their stories with PUNCH.
For 35-year-old Shalewa, getting to feed her daughter could best be described as a Herculean task. The scene, whenever she had to feed the eight-month-old Omolewa, could be likened to a ‘royal rumble’ or a bout in a boxing ring.
Based on the advice of several people, ranging from her siblings, parents, in-laws, neighbours, to church members and other concerned individuals, she had tried several feeding options for Omolewa, but all was to no avail.
A bank worker, Juliana Enwerem’s experience was similar to what Shalewa went through. She gave her baby boy, Jerome, breast milk exclusively for the first 8 months of his life. Even though doctors generally recommend 6-month exclusive breastfeeding, Enwerem decided to go two extra months.
She believed that once she was ready to start feeding Jerome regular foods, he would savour them all. But as it happened, things didn’t turn out as she had expected.
On weaning Jerome, Enwerem first introduced pap to him but the baby flatly rejected it. When the disturbed mother spoke to a neighbour about her predicament, she was advised to add soya beans, ginger and some other ingredients to ostensibly make the pap more palatable for the baby. But still, Jerome would have none of it. If the food managed to enter into his mouth, he would sooner vomit it.
Enwerem was already at her wits’ end when one day, while scrolling through Instagram, she saw a comment by a young mother, narrating how she had had trouble feeding her infant until she found a way out of her predicament.
Enwerem quickly sent a message to this person, who then connected her to an indigenous baby food manufacturer.
‘Local food worked like magic’
Enwerem revealed that contacting the local food manufacturer turned out to be the best decision she had taken as regards feeding her child. She said,
“Shortly after I sent the lady a message on Instagram, she linked me up with the food manufacturer. Because of my prior experiences in that regard, my hopes were not really high that the food would interest my baby.
But at that time, I was eager to try anything that would make my child eat well. Incidentally, the baby food I bought from the local manufacturer worked for my child, who was ordinarily a picky eater.”
Enwerem stated that since she started giving her baby the food, he had started to glow more and get bigger. She added,
“I think it is a wonderful initiative because Nigerian infant food makers know the types of things Nigerian babies like, considering that they live here with us. I think that is one reason many Nigerian children are fussy about imported foods because the ingredients used in making them may not go well with them.”
‘Experience is the best teacher’
An indigenous baby food manufacturer, Adepeju Jaiyeoba, told PUNCH that her products came out of her experience dealing with her choosy child. She said,
“When I had my first son, I was feeding him imported baby food because I am particular about nutrients. As of then, I had worked in the child health sector for more than 10 years. Whenever I went to the stores to buy baby food, I always read the nutrients properly.
I noticed that most of the baby foods in the country were imported and they were very expensive. One would then find oneself buying flavours, such as blueberries and raspberries, which affect the taste buds of the child. In cases like that, transitioning to locally-made foods would be quite difficult.”
Jaiyeoba explained that she began making baby food amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant lockdown. She said,
“At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when I was sharing maternal health tips with women, it became more prominent on my mind. Most of the palliatives that were distributed by the government did not cater to the need of children under the age of four.
Yet, it is at that age that the brain experiences the most development. When some children under the age of five are struggling to cope in school, people will think that something is wrong with the child, not knowing that it is caused by the nutritional intake of the child.
I saw the pandemic as a period to help mothers by producing quality foods for their babies. Our first product was made in May 2020.”
Another indigenous infant food manufacturer, Olufunmilayo Idusuyi, stated that she was inspired to go into that line of business because of the challenges mothers go through in feeding their babies.
“We are having a generation of mothers, who, most times, do not know how to feed their babies and give them the necessary nutrients they need. Back in the day, we used to have grandmothers who would come around to help new mothers.
But now, we have working-class mothers who usually don’t have time to prepare food for their babies. That was one of the things that inspired me to start making baby food.
Another reason is the fact that some babies have different types of allergies. Some babies reject foreign or imported foods because they do not appeal to their tastes.”
Yet another baby food maker, Nneka Ogboi, noted that she was motivated to start making infant food because of the experience she had as a first-time mum. She said,
“It was based on my experience as a first-time mum. I realised that most baby foods are imported. Whenever I went to supermarkets to buy food for my baby, I usually found that the products they had were for older children. And most of the foods were produced a long time ago.
I felt very uncomfortable with that because I was looking for something natural and nutritious. I had also observed that people who fed their kids’ imported foods usually found it difficult getting those children to eat Nigerian foods, such as ‘swallow’ later on.
I did not want to have to start retraining my kids’ taste buds. It was on that basis that I started making food for my child. From there, colleagues started asking me to make for them as well. Gradually, I started expanding to making it for friends and family. Then, I decided to get professional training in child nutrition and cooking, to be able to do it better.”
Just like Ogboi, Chinaza Muoh’s baby food manufacturing journey started out of curiosity. According to her, after she gave birth to her daughter in 2019, she was always wondering and asking what she could feed her baby.
However, it wasn’t until 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was wreaking havoc all over the world, that she had the impetus to start a business. She said,
“Shortly after the birth of my daughter, the world was in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no income, and people were stuck. I started thinking of alternatives to feed my baby because the sources of income I had then were not reliable.
I started carrying out research, and I saw that I could feed my baby fruits such as avocados and bananas. All I had to do was combine those fruits to become a meal. The first fruit I gave her was avocado puree, and she finished everything I served her.
So, I started giving her other foods and researching more on other things I could give her. In the process, I realised that different fruits could be mixed, and meat could even be added. I also discovered that when I started giving my baby those meals, she became more active; and I was able to cut down a lot of costs, which I would have used to buy cereal.
As I kept giving her those foods and it was working, I thought of sharing the knowledge with other mothers. That was when I opened pages on Instagram and Facebook. I then started educating mothers that there was another method of feeding their children, aside from just buying cereal. The more I was educating mothers, the more they were trying it, and it worked for them.”
Encouraging reception, good business
Like other nursing mothers, who inadvertently turned to baby food manufacturers after discovering a solution to their babies’ choosy tastes, Seun Sangoleye has found gold since she developed a formula for her baby.
She has long overcome her challenge of feeding her baby and now she’s found an economic opportunity, offering the solution to other mothers.
Narrating her journey, Sangoleye recalled how she resorted to conducting a study after getting conflicting answers from her mother-in-law, church members and colleagues on how to solve the problem of feeding her choosy baby, who she just weaned.
Her research led to some interesting discovery, which worked for her baby and has now become a source of revenue for her. She said,
“After that, I decided that I was going to share my new-found knowledge with other mothers; and before one could say ‘food’, I had started amassing a great following on social media. After advising mothers on the types of food they should give their babies, they started asking where they could buy them.”
Jaiyeoba has also got a good testimony to share in terms of sales. She noted that the first set of mothers who discovered her product also facilitated the products to be made available at stores near their homes for easy access and purchase. She said,
“Since we started the company, one of the things that we have had going for us are the mothers who first had enough interest in us to try out our baby food.
Some of these mothers were tired of going to the factory to pick up our products, and they approached some stores to stock our products so that they could buy from there. That has happened many times. Some mothers bought as many as six cartons from us because they were tired of coming to our location to buy from us all the time.”
On her part, Idusuyi said since the introduction of her product into the market, the reception from Nigerian mothers struggling to find suitable foods for their babies has been good and encouraging. She said,
“The reception has been good and that is what has kept us in business. We have got a lot of referrals from mothers who have tried our products for their babies. After using our products and loving them, they recommend them to other mothers.
“People who buy our products have moved from being just our customers to being our partners. Our ultimate goal is to be a pan-African business that will cater to African communities and provide them with what they will need to support the healthy growth and all-round development of children.”
For Ogboi, the feedback from her customers has also been amazing. According to her, many parents were relieved that they could get fresh products for their children.
“On my part, I also found out that those ‘natural’ foods had a lot of benefits. For example, they helped babies with constipation. I recall that a mum once told me that she had spent heavily on treating constipation in her daughter, yet she was not seeing results.
When I sought to know what she was feeding the child, I realised it was starchy foods, so I told her to give the baby more foods containing fibre and protein. I made some changes to the baby’s diet, and she came back later to say that there was so much improvement, and the baby was then able to ‘poop’ properly. Fruits and vegetables are healthier than cereals and other processed foods.”
Thorough registration process
Jaiyeoba, who is an alumnus of the Technology Incubation Centre in Agege, Lagos, said that the process of registering her products with the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control was thorough yet not stressful. She said,
“It was the normal process (of registering food and drugs). I did not go through the incubation centre. I went through the normal NAFDAC route to get the certification. The sensitive nature of the business cannot be accommodated under the category of small and medium-scale enterprises. One needs to go through the full-scale industry registration process.
We had about 11 different specifications from NAFDAC. They were very thorough right till the point when we started producing. Even then, they still carry out random inspections of our facilities without notice. I was actually impressed with the quality of work they did in our factory. When it comes to baby food, one cannot afford not to be thorough.”
Idusuyi hinted that NAFDAC had set high standards for local manufacturers of baby food, which though positive, made production very capital-intensive.
On what she does to make sure her products are of good quality, Sangoleye said,
“For baby foods, there are international standards. For us, we try to match those international standards.
“In terms of the formulation of our products, we enjoy technical support from the Technical University of Denmark. We have also been supported by some retail outlets.
“In my organisation, we train our staff weekly. I am grateful that NAFDAC, and the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, take their jobs seriously. While growing, they pointed us in the right way to go. We do a lot of things to ensure quality, and that starts from when we are procuring our raw materials.”
Interactions with local baby food makers revealed that the market was still competitive for indigenous baby foods, as their imported counterparts still enjoy dominance.
Though there had been campaigns by the government for Nigerians to embrace made-in-Nigeria products as a way of strengthening the naira, the result is still very insignificant.
Aside from that, Jaiyeoba identified unstable electricity supply as a major challenge in this line of business, noting that it unnecessarily pushed up the cost of production with a ripple effect on pricing. She said,
“The biggest challenge is irregular electricity supply. One needs diesel to constantly power one’s generating sets. This is particularly so because of the sensitive nature of baby food, which requires constant electricity to preserve. I think the infrastructure around the small-scale business should be supported.
“Another challenge is access to funds. It is very difficult to get funds when starting up, and I am sure it is the same for most start-ups. We hear about funds (allocated to SMEs) to buy machines and we are looking forward to the implementation of these ideas by the government.”
Much said there were a lot of things the government could do to help manufacturers in the sector. She said,
“If the government wants to help people like me, it can do so by partnering with us and giving us loans. They could also give us certain concessions in the area of taxes. That will encourage us to keep pushing forward.”
Meanwhile, for Ogboi, she acknowledged that though the sector was getting some form of support from the government, things could be better. She said,
“We currently get some level of support because for baby foods and other products, we (manufacturers) get exempted from certain things.
However, we still need better electricity supply and funding to buy the type of equipment we need to make our products. Just like you mentioned, this is an emerging industry, and most of the equipment we use are imported.
So, we need more financing in dollars, which is the currency used to make most of our purchases. It will really be helpful if we get access to foreign exchange at an affordable rate. Black market rates are really ‘killing’ us.”
Speaking on the challenges she faced, Sangoleye lamented that some infant food manufacturers had gotten support from the governments of other countries, but Nigeria had not done anything to support them.
Creating value chain
Sourcing raw material is undoubtedly one of the most important parts of the infant food-making process. Without good raw materials, they cannot produce foods of good quality.
Sharing her experience in that area, Jaiyeoba said,
“Our quality control does not start when customers purchase our products. It starts with gathering the seeds, which are both perishable and non-perishable. We use a mixture of grains and seeds. We have partnership agreements with some farms that produce our perishable seeds, and we receive constant reports from them.
They also supply the perishable fruits we use for our production. That partnership helps us to maintain a high level of quality. For our grains, we work with some farmers in the northern part of the country. They are small-scale farmers and are in different categories. They come together to supply us in Lagos. We also have a team in Kano State.”
On her part, Idusuyi stated that she made use of local farmers and producers.
An Associate Professor of Food Science and Technology at Mountain Top University, Ogun State, Dr. Atinuke Idowu, advised mothers to give priority to made-in-Nigeria foods for their children. She said,
“These products that are made locally are indigenous to us, so they are cheaper, more readily available and are easily digestible. Some of these weaning foods are made from a combination of fermented cereals (such as sorghum, millet and maize), legumes, vegetables, fruits, and others.
These products have high nutritional values. Protein, energy malnutrition and micronutrient malnutrition have been reported to affect over 25 per cent of children in Sub-Saharan Africa, leading to illnesses and high children mortality rates.
Several efforts have been made to improve the nutritive value of ogi (pap) by fortifying it with food materials that are especially high in protein, such as soybeans, wheat offal, crayfish and others.
On the other hand, some of the imported/processed weaning foods contain additives, and they could have adverse effects on children.”
Idowu, who is also a visiting professor at the University of Manitoba, Canada, further urged manufacturers of baby foods to do due diligence in terms of hygiene, considering the weak immunity of babies. She added,
“Indigenous baby food processors should make deliberate efforts to include those dietary supplements that are required for the growth of children. Children need a lot of protein, and micronutrients, such as vitamin A, iron and calcium.”
Another nutritionist, Kemi Babafemi, stated that having a variety of indigenous foods for parents to choose from was a step in the right direction. She said,
“All over the world, there are different foods that are particular to different kinds of people. The type of food that an American child likes will be different from those that the Nigerian kid fancies, and vice versa. That is why it is important to feed children with what is peculiar to their environment.”
Vast economic potential waiting to be unlocked
Beyond providing feeding alternatives, some economic experts posited that if well harnessed, the sector was a goldmine that would benefit the economy in the long run.
A report by the Central Bank of Nigeria in January 2022 noted that the country spent about $1.8bn on food imports in nine months (January-September, 2021). Though it was not stated what percentage of the humongous sum was used in importing baby foods, it would have gulped a huge amount.
During a Bankers’ Committee retreat held in Lagos in December 2021, the Governor of the CBN, Godwin Emefiele, had insisted that Nigeria could produce enough food to feed its citizens. He had said,
“We believe that Nigeria can feed itself. Nigeria can produce what to eat. Everything needs to be done for us to move away from a situation where everything is imported.
“We need to get to a stage where we bring our manufacturing industries back to life again. For us to say that there is sustainable, inclusive growth in the country, we, as banks, working with the government must do everything possible to diversify the economy.”
In 2020, Abdulkadir Mu’azu, a permanent secretary in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, had estimated that Nigeria spent about $1.5bn annually to import milk and other dairy products.
Represented by Winnie Lai-Solarin, the then acting director of animal husbandry services at the ministry, Mu’azu stated that the huge bill was due to the long neglect of the livestock sector, which had consequently put a lot of burden on the import bill of the country.
A renowned economist and a professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Akpan Epko, stated that if well handled, the baby food manufacturing sector could provide a lot of employment and conserve foreign exchange. He said,
“It will generate employment and conserve foreign exchange, which can then be used to grow the industry and its other sub-sectors. It will also lead to capacity building, and deepen research on baby food in universities. If the people in the sector are well-trained, they will in turn churn out high-quality products. Also, we could even be exporting the baby foods to other countries, and earn foreign exchange.
“As a matter of fact, it is even risky to be importing every food eaten in the country. I believe we have what it takes to produce those foods in the country.”
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Ekpo, who is also the Chairman of the Foundation for Economic Research and Training, urged the government to support the industry with funding, in the form of loans with single-digit interests, and a long-term repayment plan.
In a chat, another economist, Muda Yusuf, who is the Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for the Promotion of Private Enterprise and a former Director-General of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, noted that people usually imported foods for two major reasons— to be assured of good quality and to cut cost.
He added that if the government gave baby food manufacturers certain incentives, such as tax waivers, they would be able to bring down their operating costs and consequently compete favourably with foreign brands. He said,
“They (manufacturers) should be helped in the areas of tax breaks and waivers on things such as import duties on their equipment.
“Also, if the skills of the people making these infant foods can be enhanced, people would have no fear about their quality, and they would be well patronised, which would invariably lead to increased profitability.”
Another economist and the Chief Executive Officer of Cowry Asset Management Limited, Johnson Chukwu, maintained that proper grooming of the industry would make the economic environment reproductive and attractive. He added,
“Some of the challenges they (manufacturers) have are inadequate infrastructure, poor power supply, and logistics. When they bring in equipment, they, sometimes, stay so long are the seaport due to a lack of transporting infrastructure.
Their quality of goods may not immediately match the ones that are imported, but if the sector is consistently invested in, things will gradually change for the better, and the quality will increase. The onus is on the government to provide basic infrastructure and a reliable power supply. That is the only way these small and medium-scale enterprises can favourably compete with their foreign counterparts.
“We used to have many local brands in the 80s but because the environment was not conducive for them to do business, many of them have packed up, while some have moved out of the country to places with a better business climate.”
On how the sector can have a direct impact on the exchange rate, Prof Ekpo said,
“Bringing down the exchange rate is a function of supply and demand. If the supply of foreign exchange is increased, it will help to bring down the cost. However, that is not something that can be done in the short-term; it can only be achieved in the long run.”
The Director of Food Security of the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control, Eva Edwards, stated that as a regulatory body, the agency did not have any special programme to encourage or promote infant food (breast milk substitutes).
Speaking with our correspondent, NAFDAC’s Director of Food Security, Edwards, said, “As a matter of fact, we champion the policy for children to be fed with breast milk for 36 weeks. Because of that, we cannot encourage infant food makers, as it is not in tandem with the aforementioned policy.
“Also our purview is all foods and drugs in the country, and we don’t give preferential treatment to any sector. We treat everybody the same way across board.
“We always follow due process and do our due diligence. We never compromise on our duty.”