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African specialty foods key part of AGOA

Published date:
Tuesday, 04 August 2009

A US specialty food development company is helping African countries develop higher-end products for export to U.S. and worldwide markets.

The company, Talier Trading Group, now works in 14 African countries.

"In Kenya, we export coffee, tea, honey and a range of cooking sauces," said Jim Thaller, the company's chief executive officer. "We do jams from Senegal. We do juices. A lot of what we do is very regional-specific."

Thaller talked with at the combined private sector-civil society opening session at the Eighth AGOA Forum in Nairobi August 4. He was attending the AGOA Forum to network and further improve and expand his company's product line.

"Africa is not terribly competitive in the commodity trade, so we try to brand products the way you would pasta sauce from Italy and then export predominantly to the United States," he said.

Thaller, a self-described entrepreneur, said the business represents entrepreneurialism at its most grass-roots, basic level.

"Nothing is as exciting as starting from scratch. ... You get to interact with a lot of African government officials" and people across the spectrum, he said. He praised many African governments for helping his company market African products.

"We get a lot of support from African governments. ... They help us pay for signage. They help us put on various launch events. We work with the ministries of tourism ... because when we go into a new supermarket chain, it is a new experience. ... Most of the American public doesn't know anything about Africa ... so we are able to come in and say, 'We have all of this fabulous food, taste it.' We bring in celebrity chefs and put on huge events. ... We try to do it as a total learning experience for all of Africa."

He said the specialty food market in the United States is the largest in the world, totaling about $70 billion in revenue annually, with the European market doing only about half that volume.

For that reason, he said, "we typically start with the U.S." to achieve critical mass marketing production of a product.

Asked if the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade preference program has helped his business, Thaller said, "Absolutely."

"AGOA has done a couple of things: It allows us to get African products into the U.S. duty free, which is very helpful when you are talking about operating out of an amazingly expensive place like Africa.

"Beyond that, it has also brought in a lot more attention to the various sectors" of trade. "It has been tremendously helpful."

Thaller said his company identifies products and partners and helps them export to the United States or sometimes designs a product and manufactures it in Africa for export.

"In Mali, we do a range of baking mixes, such as West African chocolate spice cake." He said even though people in Mali are not baking cakes, 70 percent of the agricultural population is growing millet or sorghum or cassava.

"We cannot take the product raw, as it is, but are most interested in implementing the value chain [finishing the raw product for added value] in Mali or anywhere else, so that is where we actually take those raw materials, turn them into flour and then process from there."

Because the value is added in Mali, he said, the Malians earn more money from their crops as they are refined into finished products.

Thaller said his company, which does specialty foods worldwide, has been involved in Africa for only three years but has already increased business from zero to $10 million annually.

He said his company sets up specialty food aisles in 7,000 supermarkets, representing 39 ethnic parts of the world.

"We do all of them: British, French, Thai. Africa is just another piece of that. Right now, the Africa program consists of 520 products from 14 countries.

"In 2006, African cuisine was an unknown category in the mainstream market. Now it is easily one of the fastest-growing categories -- starting from zero there is nowhere to go but up."

Thaller said he is hoping to double his revenue volume from African foods by 2010.

The Eighth AGOA Forum, also known as the United States-Sub-Saharan African Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum, runs through August 6. It also has a ministerial session, beginning August 5, that will be addressed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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