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Farms profit as Unilever buys African ingredients

STORY: Busari Kasali used to live in fear that his cassava would spoil before it got to market.

Now the Nigerian farmer says his main concern is keeping up with growing demand from Unilever.

The consumer goods giant - behind brands including Knorr, Hellman's and Ben and Jerry's - says it's pivoting to African suppliers for its operations on the continent.

And that's good news for Kasali.

"They collect the cassava from us all the time, once we load the van and we take it to them, they weigh it and give us our money. Now we are very confident to plant as much as we wish to plant because we do not have any problem selling it, we know where to sell it."

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Many global companies have been grappling with rising energy and raw material costs

- a consequence of the war in Ukraine and the hangover from the global health crisis.

They've also faced supply disruptions and wild currency volatility, making it hard to import goods to Africa.

Unilever says that's why it's trying to source locally for products sold on the continent, even if they aren't actually cheaper.

Kasali's cassava plants are used to make sorbitol, a key ingredient of toothpaste, replacing supplies from China.

The crop is processed by firms like Psaltry International, which then supplies Nestle and Danone, as well as Unilever.

Founder Oluyemisi Iranloye says turnover should at least double this year, but worries that African farms just can't produce enough:

’We still don’t have enough. We are still operating at about 55-60% today because of raw materials, and so raw material is a challenge, farmers need to be properly funded for raw materials to be produced at a level at which we can increase our capacity to about 80%.''

Cassava producers aren't the only ones to benefit.

In South Africa, Unilever is sourcing herbs and spices for products like its curry blends and stock cubes.

Those ingredients would previously have come from India.

That just leaves African farmers with the challenge of meeting demand.