In today's global marketplace, the quality of food products and their exportability is measured by the capacity of individual enterprises and national regulatory bodies to adhere to regional and international standards. These dictate firm-level production processes and management systems.
A network of accredited agencies and national standards bureaus certify food processors, and verify the suitability of their products for consumption.
Yet few consumers are familiar with the long list of food quality certifications and standards like Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), ISO 22000, and Global Gap, to name a few, even though their existence was instigated to protect consumer health and safety.
Raising the quality of processed foods
HACCP is an internationally accepted management system designed to increase food safety by analysing and controlling biological, chemical and physical hazards along the production process from raw material production to consumption of the finished product.
A tripartite partnership between the British Standards Institute (BSI), Trademark East Africa (TMEA), and the Rwandan Bureau of Standards (RBS) is building the foundation for the national adoption and implementation of HACCP in Rwanda; a process expected to take 7 to 10 years until it is mandatory for all food processors, according to BSI Team Leader, Shyam Kumar Gugadhur, who has contributed to similar projects across the continent.
The HACCP capacity building program was launched in early 2013. After a series of awareness activities, surveys and applications, 24 enterprises were selected as the most viable implementers of HACCP based on their export potential and capacity for HACCP implementation.
As vanguards of high quality food processing in Rwanda, these firms are expected to adapt their current processes, procedures, materials and equipment to conform to HACCP standards so they may become HACCP certified.
Personnel from RBS and other relevant public institutions, as well as local consultants, will join the enterprises during training. Training the former familiarises RBS with HACCP more intimately, potentially enabling the institution to become an accredited HACCP certifier and auditor.
The latter benefit by practical training in HACCP implementation, preparing them to support enterprises to do the same as more firms realise the value of HACCP or as the management system becomes mandatory for all food processors.
More than consumer safety
Rwanda is a net food importer. Despite engaging over 80% of the economy in agricultural activities, Rwanda retains a food and beverage trade imbalance for the first half of 2013, as reported by the Central Bank of Rwanda. Imports valued above USD333 million compared to USD29 million worth of exports trickling out of the country.
According to a UN Comtrade report in 2012, Rwanda's largest export markets include Tanzania, DRC and Kenya, the first and last being member states of the East African Community (EAC) alongside Rwanda.
The EAC is designed to ease the movement of people and goods across borders through economic integration, but protectionism channeled through food processing standards distorts the private sector from realising its full trade potential. These technical barriers drive up production costs and siphon opportunities for SMEs to access regional markets, a crippling reality for an agriculture-based economy promoting exportation.
Adopting an international system like HACCP could topple technical barriers in the EAC related to quality control, gaining Rwanda access to and deeper penetration in regional markets.
In the long run, it is an opportunity for Rwanda to build the necessary foundation to compete against food processing powerhouses like Kenya and Tanzania in more sophisticated and lucrative export markets such as the EU and the US.
Kigali Farms Inc., an enterprise expanding operations along the mushroom value chain in Rwanda, concentrates most production activities downstream by producing inputs for farmers. The firm is now reaching upstream with value-added production of dried mushrooms and mushroom powder. The enterprise is among the HACCP trainees expected to design future processing in accordance with HACCP.
"Since we are new in mushroom manufacturing, we will need to invest in a stainless steel milling machine, for example, which is easy to clean but expensive compared to the alternatives. We must also put in place facilities for personal hygiene, material hygiene, and so on," explains Ariane Mukeshimana, Kigali Farms Production and Quality Manager.
"HACCP is an essential food safety system," notes Mukeshimana. "It is each citizen's right to buy food that is safe, and we respect that."
Another trainee, Urwibutso Enterprise/Sina Gerard, is a well-known juice and baked goods producer whose products are consumed across the country. Already ISO 2000 certified, Quality Controller Diogene Ngezahayo clarifies that many principles of ISO 2000 and HACCP intersect so the company anticipates minor "update" investments rather than a system overhaul.
"Our management is committed to make necessary changes," Ngezahayo affirms. "People will have a good image of our products and it will help us to be competitive on international markets."
Private sector to take ownership
Kigali Farms and Sina Gerard were chosen for HACCP training because of their obvious commitment and intellectual and financial capacity, but what about other SMEs in operation or future cash-strapped start-ups?
Gugadhur warns that it won't be easy.
Enterprises will need to invest significant capital in equipment, facilities, processes and monitoring systems. This includes employing trained food technologists. Gugadhur admits the multitude of graduates in the field are prepared with theory but have no practical experience in implementation. The HACCP training of local consultants is an attempt to overcome this experience gap.
Companies will need to show initiative and take ownership. They must have a vision for what is possible and invest the appropriate time, energy and capital to implement and maintain HACCP standards.
Rwanda must hope that, like Kigali Farms and Sina Gerard, other companies will understand the value of HACCP, for consumers and for their bottom line.