Addressing packaging education in Africa

A recent trip to Nigeria showed our AIP columnist that there is so much Australia can teach the developing world when it comes to effective packaging.

Lagos, Nigeria. The destination conjures up a varietyof imaginations. I grew up in South Africa but nothing could have prepared me for the highly populated, super-resourced, bustling West African nation. A quarter of Africa's population lives in Nigeria. It is the seventh most populous country (an estimated 200 million people) in the world with 42 percent of its population zero to 14 years of age. It is the world's eighth largest exporter of petroleum.  It is a country of huge extremes and I feel privileged to have been asked to participate recently in a five day residential training program (RTP) focusing on Packaging Technology education.

The World Packaging Organisation (WPO) approached the AIP to deliver this week long training program. Thirty-four students from Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya and South Africa attended; all with a strong desire to learn more in the field of the science and technology of packaging. The majority of the attendees were graduates including some with Masters qualifications and two with PhDs. But Packaging Technology is what they were hungry to learn about. No small wonder when one considers that more than 50 percent of Africa's food supply is lost through poor/ineffective/insufficient packaging. All participants keenly absorbed information and their eagerness to improve their knowledge in this field was most evident in their final project presentation on the fifth day.

This West African RTP initiative will be the first of more to come. Already the African Packaging Organisation (APO) is planning similar programs in 2014 in Accra and another in Lagos; the latter focusing on pharmaceutical packaging. Although this recent RTP covered the entire spectrum of packaging technology, what drove the students and which was evident in their questions, was how one can improve packaging and reduce costs. Participants wanted to know what their packaging counterparts were doing in developed countries and how they can improve, particularly the packaging of foodstuffs to reduce wastage.

In this region much fresh produce is sold on the ‘open markets’, where  better knowledge of material selection coupled with  more effective storage would greatly reduce the loss of fresh fruit and vegetables. Subsistence farming is the order of the day in Nigeria where the farmer brings a few baskets of produce to the market and transfers the contents to another basket belonging to the open market vendor. Fresh produce is exposed to the elements during display and sales resulting in a very limited shelf life.

There is significant evidence of informal packaging happening throughout Africa. This is where vendors buy in bulk and repack into small pack sizes for ‘open market’ sales which better suits the consumer owing to low income and poor storage facilities at home. Affordability also drives daily supply of household, hygiene items such as toothpaste where 15ml (one day dose) sachets are by far the biggest seller of toothpaste units. It is in this area of small dose packaging that most support, knowledge and advice is required.

This recent RTP has been a good start. Ongoing education is required at all levels of the packaging spectrum. The AIP, in collaboration with WPO, has the knowledge, the resources, the first world experience and the ability to share information and expertise. In fact, we have an obligation to help those in developing countries. The APO and WPO are to be commended for taking the initiative to begin addressing this most serious need in Africa. The road ahead is long and it is wide but the journey has commenced. The destination is not necessarily in sight but the rewards along the way for all involved will be big and long lasting.

Pierre Pienaar is an education coordinator at the Australian Institute of Packaging (AIP)


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