In Malawi, Universal Industries, a leading snack and beverage company, is developing a line of orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP)-based snacks. With funding from Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation, Universal is developing a supply chain of smallholder farmers that are trained in OFSP production and providing them access to OFSP vines through the International Potato Center (CIP). By investing in Universal’s new product line development, Partnering for Innovation is helping build sustainable access to vitamin A-rich OFSP for both rural and urban consumers in Malawi and generating a new source of income for farmers.
In Malawi, food grown on the country’s many small farms often doesn’t go further than the household, or perhaps the local market. People grow the same crops they’ve grown for generations, feeding their families and maybe earning a little extra when they have a surplus. Without access to formal markets and integration into profitable value chains, most farmers aren’t able to reach their income and food security potential.
But opportunities to make farming more profitable do exist, especially as companies like Universal Industries increasingly see the benefits of working with smallholder farmers. Smallholder farmers make up the majority of the country’s food producers, making them an important potential source of raw products for processors like Universal. When developing its new OFSP product line, Universal worked with CIP to identify farmer groups that might be willing to use some of their land for OFSP production.
The farmers CIP identified saw the profit they could make from growing OFSP with Universal providing a market for what they produced. After agreeing to become OFSP suppliers for Universal, the farmers were provided with OFSP vines and training on good agricultural practices, leadership, and finance. The farmers started growing two varieties of OFSP that were initially identified as being good for processing because of their color and moisture content.
The farmers sold some of their potatoes to Universal, which brought the potatoes to its processing facility in Blantyre, and some to local traders, providing the farmers with income for school fees, additional food, and other necessities. They also kept some of the potatoes for household use, increasing vitamin A consumption for stronger immune systems and improved eye health, and which is vastly under-consumed in Malawi. Through September 2017, 8,600 smallholder farmers had been trained and had accessed improved OFSP vines or sold OFSP to Universal.
Universal Industries is one of Malawi’s oldest and most recognizable food and beverage companies. Go into any shop in the country and you’ll see its snack products; ask any consumer and they’ll tell you what their favorite Universal cookie is. With funding from Partnering for Innovation, Universal developed a new product line that’s based on nutritious, delicious OFSP.
Developing a line of products based on a new ingredient takes time, investment, and commitment. There are many varieties of OFSP, and although there has been extensive research conducted on them, mainly by CIP, little research had been done on which varieties are best suited for processing. Because of Universal’s OFSP product line development, CIP and Universal began focusing on identifying and promoting varieties that Universal and other companies could use in their products.
Universal also needed investment to market test and launch its new OFSP product line. With Partnering for Innovation’s $1 million investment, and a matching investment from Universal of $1.2 million, Universal developed several new OFSP-based products for retailers around the country. Like any new innovation in food, Universal’s OFSP products require multiple rounds of taste testing and adjusting to make them tasty and appealing to consumers.
Shop at a supermarket in Blantyre, though, and you can’t help but notice the bright orange packages of Universal’s OFSP potato chips and cookies. Universal is also supplying OFSP puree and flour to bakeries, which have found that their new OFSP-based bread is enormously popular with consumers and reduces costs by replacing expensive imported wheat flour.
Universal’s OFSP crisps and cookies are currently available in supermarkets and shops, and the company has held promotions to make consumers aware of the new products. The snack foods market in Malawi is exploding, and consumers are eagerly purchasing the newly available, locally produced products. Tapping into this demand, Universal has sold more than $20,000 worth of OFSP products to date. With its unique, brightly-colored OFSP snacks, Universal is taking advantage of consumer demand to increase both its profits and vitamin A consumption across the country.