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How local cereal makers are slicing into N200bn baby food market

The rising cost of branded baby cereals in Nigeria, where seven million babies are born yearly, has prompted the increasing production of an innovative local variant that is cheaper and said to contain the essential nutrients children need to grow, writes GBEMI FAMINU.

Olaifa Memunat is a 25-year-old who recently gave birth to twin boys, in Alagbado area of Lagos state. As a full-time housewife with four children below the age of six, the family survives on N25,000 ($50) every month which is the husband’s steady monthly income as a security guard at a factory.

Despite the family’s meagre income, the healthy-looking two-month-old babies weigh 4.5 and 4.2 kilogram respectively. Memunat says the boys eat voraciously and cannot be sustained with milk alone hence, she feeds them with a locally made cereal known as ‘Tom Brown’.

The local cereal is a thick brown powder made from a combination of cereals such as yellow maize, soybean, millet, guinea corn. Also added are crayfish, pepper, kuli-kuli (a local snack made from groundnut), dry fish, and actual groundnut etc. all of which are roasted and dry blended.

It is prepared by being dissolved or made into a paste using room temperature water after which it is stirred continuously on fire until it thickens; it is then ready to eat as a puree.

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Some mothers add milk as well as blended fruits and nuts in powdered form to the mix, to add more flavour and increase the nutrients it provides.

According to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), every year, at least 7 million babies are born in Nigeria, accelerating population growth, which is estimated to be the fifth largest in the world at 401 million by 2050. However, the growing population is occurring in a parallel with a 40.1 percent poverty rate, 33 percent unemployment rate, and a double-digit inflation rate of 17.93 percent as at May 2021.

To survive and feed their babies, many parents with low purchasing power and constrained income resort to using the locally made cereal, which costs between N300 (60 cents) and N5000 ($10) depending on size, the least being 16grams.

This is a cheaper alternative to the branded cereals, which cost between N2, 500 ($5) to N9, 000 ($18) depending on the size and brand.

With the high rate of malnutrition in Nigeria and Africa generally, the cereal addresses possible nutritional deficiencies, which can hinder a baby’s growth and development process. According to UNICEF, just 18 percent of children aged 6-23 months are fed the minimum acceptable diet in Nigeria, with the country having the second-highest burden of stunted children in the world, with a national prevalence rate of 32 percent of children under five.

The local cereal, according to nursing mothers and childcare experts who spoke with BusinessDay, nourishes babies with diverse vitamins and minerals that aid their growth.

Ken Research in its Nigeria Baby Food Market Outlook, the shift towards organic baby food is observed on the back of increasing health awareness and purchasing power of households, which has encouraged the demand for flavoured baby foods and other variants. The baby food industry, generally, is projected to reach N200 billion by 2023.

According to Paediatric experts, the nutritional benefits of the cereals used to formulate this local alternative include but are not limited to protein, iron, magnesium, potassium, carbohydrate, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, etc.

In Nigeria, there are several producers of this baby cereal looking to tap the market potentials. One of them is Yemisi Akeju, CEO, Fawree Foods who makes and sells the Tom Brown cereal in Lagos.

While babies are sometimes known to reject formulated food, she says rejection of this local cereal is less than 10 percent. This makes it an attractive solution for parents with picky eaters, adding that if stored in an air-tight container it has a shelf life of one year.

She retails the cereal in a 1kg jar sold for N2,200 and supplies a minimum of five packs monthly to supermarkets with each pack containing 12 jars. From this, she makes about N132, 000 monthly.

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Apart from being recommended by some medical personnel, Akeju says her production and sale of the cereal is approved by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), after going through some processes and fulfilling certain requirements.

She added that the cereal is made from products like millet, soya beans, maize, etc. however due to some allergic reactions, crayfish as one of the ingredients was replaced with unripe plantain.

Kemi Omoloye also makes and sells the local cereal on a micro-scale. She spends between N2500 and N3000 to make it depending on the size and inputs, she then sells the 5kg size for N6000 and N8000 in some cases depending on the special request for some ingredients like dried nuts, dates, cocoa powder, or coconut flour to give different flavours and acting as sweeteners to avoid the use of sugar.

Having been in the business for five years, Omoloye says it has gotten better over time as she makes an average profit of N3000 on each 5kg sold, selling a minimum of six every week and 25 monthly. To make a 5kg Tom Brown cereal, she uses 850grams of yellow corn, soybean, and guinea corn, 650grams of millet, 200 grams of groundnut and crayfish, for special requests she adds cocoa powder, unripe plantain, coconut flour, etc.

“Producing the cereal requires proper measurement to avoid side effects from too much fibre or too much carbohydrate which is not good for babies,” she said. “In addition, if an allergic reaction is noticed it is refined continually till the right and most suitable mixture is achieved, it also requires a high level of hygiene.”

When some of the ingredients are scarce or become expensive, the cost of the cereal increases and in very rare cases, Omoleye makes use of substitutes like guinea corn or white maize. Free from unhealthy preservatives, she says the cereal has a shelf life of nine months to one year when placed in an airtight container.

While she acknowledges the product generally requires approval by necessary agencies such as NAFDAC, she is yet to register her brand because she says it is on a small scale and she may not be able to fulfil all the requirements.

Oladejo Tokunbo is mother to a six-month-old baby, and though the family has an income of N250,000 monthly from both parents, she also uses the alternative local baby food for her baby.

“My baby is a voracious eater,” she says. “I initially fed her with baby cereal from a well-known brand which cost N2500 per 400grams. This lasted between two and three days and she was never filled.”

She tried other baby food brands but the baby reacted adversely to them, making her spend about N20,000 on baby milk monthly. She however started using the local baby food when a colleague of hers recommended it.

Although hesitant at first, Tokunbo is now a converted advocate of the local cereal as her baby enjoys it. She has also reduced the cost of baby food to N10,000 monthly. Hers is rather homemade too, with her mother helping to make it from scratch which reduces production cost while increasing the quantity and quality.

“My baby’s growth has improved tremendously with the local cereal, it is filling, organic and highly nutritious,” she said.

Wunmi Falade retails the locally made cereal as well as other baby food products at the Elewe-omo section in the popular Oja-Oba market in Oshogbo, Osun state. She says that it is convenient for mothers to buy the smallest measuring cup, which sells for N300 while the 4kg goes for N3000. She also sells the ingredients for those who prefer to make it themselves.

“Some mothers also come together, make contributions and make a very large quantity which they share among themselves, it helps them to get more quantity cheaper,” she revealed.

Falade’s customers are not just nursing mothers because, beyond feeding babies, adults also enjoy the cereal and some use it to make swallow meals.

The cereal is also popular in other parts of the country, for instance Imo, where Chidinma Harbor, who has an 18-month-old toddler, makes hers by sourcing inputs from the Relief Market located in Ikenegbu Extension Layout, Owerri.

She spends as low as N5,000 which will fill a 7kg bowl and sustains not just her baby but her family for a month and sometimes more. Sometimes she buys the pre-packaged 1kg for N1200, which was formerly sold for N900.

Hauwa Mohammed, a Kaduna-based nursing mother of a seven-month-old baby also makes her own version of the cereal, known in her local Hausa parlance as Kunu Tamba. She uses grains like finger millet, wheat, beans, guinea corn, groundnut, and rice.

Sourcing her ingredients from the Kasuwa market in Kaduna, she spends N5,000 to make 5kg worth which lasts six weeks.

As noted by Eva Osagie, a Lagos-based Nutritionist, what babies eat goes a long way in determining how well they can grow, hence the best options parents have are meals that can provide enough vitamins and nutrients.

“Babies and children need food for brain development, bone development, and lots of vitamins to build their immune system, the ingredients of the cereal fulfils all of that, hence a good and affordable option for mothers,” she said.

For Durosola Modupe, chief nursing officer, Paediatric Unit, Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH) it is advised that the meal is introduced to babies from six months as a complimentary meal. However, it has to be hygienically sourced and prepared because babies have very low immune levels and can react to it badly.

Efforts to ascertain NAFDAC’s requirement on approval and registration of the cereal as a consumable product was futile, as Sayo Akintola, NAFDAC’s resident media and communication consultant refused to reply.

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