Sweet and sour

How fermented foods can promote nutrition security in Africa

Department of Social Sciences

Fermented foods can make a huge difference in providing food and nutrition security in Africa. They’re healthy, cheap and easy to make. They also provide economic opportunities for women, since they are the ones making the food. All the more reason for a big scale-up, says Valentina Materia, researcher at Wageningen University & Research.

This research contributes to Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero hunger.

Characteristic of fermented foods is that microorganisms transform their raw materials into foods that are generally safe, highly nutritious and sensory attractive, and that have an increased shelf life. In Africa, traditional fermented foods are mainly produced and sold by women, locally and on a small scale. So far, efforts to combat hunger and malnutrition in Africa have largely overlooked the potential of the improvement of local food processing and optimisation of the concerned value chains.

And that really is a missed opportunity, says Valentina Materia, researcher in the Business Management and Organisation (BMO) group. She expects that making upgraded fermented foods the subject of efforts to stimulate female entrepreneurship will have a big impact on food and nutrition security — not only by making improved fermented foods more available (a direct effect), but also through income generation to support livelihoods (an indirect effect).

Combating malnutrition

Materia is involved in a project that focuses on traditional fermented beverages in three African countries: Benin, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In Benin the beverage of choice is Akpan, a traditional Beninese non-alcoholic fermented cereal-based beverage, locally also known as a vegetable yoghurt. Mabisi, a relatively firm, slightly sour, non-alcoholic beverage made from raw milk is consumed at home and sold at local markets in Zambia. In Zimbabwe the project focuses on Mahewu, a mixed maize/sorghum cereal-based fermented non-alcoholic beverage.

Small-scale fermentation activities represent an important economic opportunity for women

Partners involved in the project

“These products are relatively easy to make and — when made properly — they are safe and healthy,” says Materia. “Further enhancing the properties of these foods and scaling up production with sufficient food safety measures can contribute enormously to combating malnutrition, empowering women and strengthening communities and livelihoods.”


In the project researchers from five groups* at Wageningen University are working with research institutes, NGO’s, government organisations and companies in those three countries. Valentina Materia leads de entrepreneurship component of the project. “Small-scale fermentation activities represent an important economic opportunity for women. Entry barriers are low, start-up costs are low, no possession of particular assets is required, and it is combinable with domestic responsibilities. Our support for the upscaling of production and the development of local value chains of these traditional culturally embedded foods will have a positive impact towards sustainable smallholder-based food systems in Africa.”

Fermented food can contribute to...

combating malnutrition

Fermented food can contribute to...

empowering women

Fermented food can contribute to...

strengthening communities and livelihoods

Materia points out: “The contribution of women to local, national and global food security and economic growth is underestimated, although they act as key economic agents of change in their rural communities. The contribution these fermentation activities can make to the livelihoods of women and the marginalised is crucial: with appropriate training and access to inputs, the most marginalised in society can still increase their independence and achieve empowerment through generation of income. I hope that we can expand our results to other traditional fermented foods and African food systems in general.”

* These five WUR groups are: Laboratory of Genetics, Business Management and Organisation, Food Quality and Design, Food Microbiology and Human Nutrition Division

Do you have a question about food security in Africa? Ask our expert:

Valentina C. Materia

Assistant Professor Business Management & Organisation