When a box is not just a box

Thursday, May 6 2010

Megan Tweed

Trade Hub Specialty Foods Expert  Megan Tweed
Trade Hub Specialty Foods Expert Megan Tweed
At some point last year, maybe it was February, my brain switched.  I no longer walk down grocery store aisles looking just for the food I want to eat – instead, I find myself scanning the shelves for new, interesting packaging options. I’ll buy products just because I like the packaging and want to share it with West African food exporters.  

My trips through the grocery store aren’t all that unique. I’m just making explicit an implicit judgment all consumers make.  Undeniably, packaging is one of the primary selling points of any processed, packaged food.  So much so that “cans and other packaging, a critical if rarely acknowledged piece of the modern food system, make up the industry’s second biggest cost factor, after labor,” notes Paul Roberts in The End of Food.

And yet, packaging that is basic, even boring, in the U.S. can be revolutionary in West Africa, like a cardboard box.  Generally, packaging design is borne out of necessity: function and form – the conservation requirements of the product and the aesthetic requirements of the consumer.  But necessity is not universal. 

While exploring the market in Sikasso, Mali, on a recent Sunday morning, I found all the ingredients I would need to make a variety of meals – plus the pots in which to cook them and the cures for any stomach upsets that might result.  

Sacks of millet, fonio, and maize line the market stalls to be measured upon request into plastic bags, knotted baggies of salt and sugar and recycled tomato paste cans filled with herbs are laid out on tarps, and, of course, an array of livestock provide the soundtrack to the scene.  

The packaging options – ranging from non-existent to minimal – reflect the market reality.  The supply chain is localized, the goods will be consumed in the short-term, and the products are generally unbranded staples.  The market in Sikasso certainly seems a long way from a Food Emporium in New York City, where products must withstand long, complex distribution channels, stay fresh for months (if not years), and compete with myriad products whose brands are supported by multi-million dollar marketing budgets.

Packaging is critical in the specialty food sector; where consumer make purchasi
Packaging is critical in the specialty food sector; where consumer make purchasing decision in a matter of seconds
Quality, appropriate packaging is one of the biggest barriers for West African food processors trying to export to international markets.  West African manufacturers and consumers are exposed to high quality food packaging in supermarkets like Casino, the French retail chain that is found all throughout Dakar.  In Casino or ShopRite, a South African chain, imported products are found alongside local goods that are packaged in basic plastic sachets with computer printed labels. Nevertheless, the packaging industry in West Africa is under-developed, often leaving exporters overwhelmed about how to meet the demands of the international market.

Which brings me back to my cardboard box. Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest. For the companies packaging products in plastic sachets, sometimes the easiest step is first to vacuum seal the sachet (in high-quality plastic) and then stick the whole thing in a well-designed cardboard box.  Design is a one-time cost, and box carton manufacturers are found all throughout the region. Likewise, glass jars also offer a straightforward solution to many packaging needs. While not manufactured in West Africa, many of producers are able to import them economically. With well-designed labels, companies like Zena Exotic Fruits and Fruitales have placed products on the shelves of Casino in France that effectively compete with their imported counterparts any day of the week.

Granted, sometimes investments in equipment are necessary to make the necessary packaging upgrades.  While these investments can be quite significant - particularly for perishable products that need shelf-stable packaging – there are many examples of high-impact, low-cost investments. 

The Trade Hub recently assisted a company producing loose-leaf tea to redesign its packaging for the U.S.  For a few thousand dollars, the company will procure a machine to fabricate, fill, and seal individual tea bags.  The bags will then be packaged in a cardboard box, sourced locally.

Different types of packaging can boost a product's appeal.
Different types of packaging can boost a product's appeal.
With these simple changes, the company suddenly has a product that is competitive in the U.S.

Even the most cutting edge innovations in packaging are often not new. Within the past decade, American yogurt companies have invested heavily to develop single-serving yogurt packages – plastic sachets – that can be consumed with one hand. 

But this “innovation” has been around for ages in West Africa.  During my last market trip, I bought a flavored yogurt drink in a knotted-up plastic bag, bit off one corner, and proceeded to suck on the cold, sweet contents as I clamored through the crowd.


1 comment

Anonymous wrote 3 years 39 weeks ago


This is a great commentary. However, as a partner in a Ghanaian-based food manufacturing business, are there any temporary solutions or resources for decent packaging? I would really be interested.

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