Chandranee Devi Moorlah is a Senior Technical Officer, MInistry of Agro Industry and Food Security

Chandranee Devi Moorlah
Chandranee Devi Moorlah

For the last 13 years, Chandranee has been working at the Ministry of Agro Industry and Food security as Senior Technical Officer in the Agricultural Information Division providing policymakers with agricultural information, and recently moved to the National Plant Protection Office (Bio-security). She has a BSc (Hons) in Agriculture, MSc in Information Technology with Management and MSc crop science from the University of Mauritius. After completing her degree, she worked as an Agronomist/Assistant Marketing Manager for about 2 years for a project called “Technology Introduction Development Scheme” whose mission was to introduce new technologies to small farmers. This four year project was funded by the Ministry of Agro Industry under the Economic and Marketing Consultancy Ltd.

Highlights

  • illustrates how value chain approach can be applied to food service as well as retail, but the priorities for chains and the final consumer may be different
  • exemplifies how value chain analysis can also result in policy recommendations.

Context

The Government of Mauritius’ vision is towards a green economy and ensuring safe food within a sustainable context. There is also growing demand for variety in diet, more nutritious food out of health concerns, and innovative and convenient products to match the modern lifestyle of the population and a growing tourism industry. Farmers are being encouraged and trained to adopt sustainable agricultural practices, including organic farming. Contrasting with the production-driven approach of most government programmes, Chandranee investigated market opportunities in supermarkets and among hotel guests for sustainable salad crops, both to help smallholders improve their livelihoods, and to make recommendations to policymakers.

Approach

Chandranee focused on the Riviere du Rempart District in the north of Mauritius, because it is close to coastal areas and hotels that are popular with tourists and expatriates. She began by conducting two consumer focus groups with local shoppers and university students, and also interviewed tourists and observed shoppers’ behaviour at supermarkets. She interviewed the supermarket procurement manger, a hotel manager and the head chef to discuss whether offering semi-organic/eco-friendly vegetables would be a strategic advantage, especially if they were locally sourced.She also held discussions with the packhouse’s marketing manager, ten farmers, four of whom were women, and input suppliers.

Shop assistant in apron and cap in produce section of supermarkert
Packaged salads on display in the supermarket

Understanding the market

There was commonality in the attributes that consumers wanted, even if the weighting varied, and the supermarket manager reported increasing demand as shoppers became more health conscious. The most sought after characteristics were:

  • Freshness, and long shelf-life (judged by expiry date)
  • Taste and crispy texture
  • Clean, with a bright green colour and very few blemishes
  • Ready to use.

Tourists were much less price sensitive. Chandranee found that “Several commented that health has no price!” Another distinction was that local shoppers did not trust logos, because either they suspect that conventional and ‘bio’ crops had been mixed together but still certified, or because of doubts about government laboratories. Conversely, tourists had much more confidence in logos in verifying those credence attributes they wanted but could not test for themselves, like the use of chemicals.

Frequency of consumption also varied. Younger local shoppers consumed less frequently than older people (and were more price sensitive), but even older people might only eat leafy salads once a week, whereas tourists reported eating salad every day. Tourists were also more willing to go out of their way to buy healthy food, whereas for local shoppers convenience was critical.

Chandranee’s investigations also highlighted the importance of understanding everyone’s needs along the chain – “For example, the driver for purchasing decisions at the hotel shouldn’t just be price, but also whether there is an opportunity to differentiate themselves from competitor hotels so they can attract more guests and so have higher occupancy rate.”

Mapping the chain

The supermarket’s main consumers were 50% Mauritian (included restaurants) and 50% tourists, expatriates and white Mauritians. It stocked a wide range of sustainable salad crops like lettuce, rockets and mixed salad in packed and labelled bags. The quality audit officer made sure that the vegetables met the required specifications:

  • Washed, cleaned and graded
  • Fresh and with sufficient shelf-life
  • No blemish and yellow leaves
  • Labelled semi-organic
  • Refrigerated supply chain from famer to supermarket.

Any product not up to standard would be returned to the supplier. The staff also made regular visits to suppliers, which were mostly companies but included some growers who supplied directly. They were selected based on reliability, consistency, quality and freshness, including using refrigerated transport. Relationships were well established and payments made promptly, so there was no need for contracts.

Leafy salad products were ordered and supplied daily, and were generally sold within two days. After that, unsold produce was sent to landfill since there was no process for recycling or composting. In terms of information flow, the retailer had no formal feedback mechanism for its shoppers, but was in daily contact with suppliers, including receiving updates on availability, for example if there were problems due to disease outbreaks, allowing time to find alternative sources and maintain stocks on their shelves.

The hotel has capacity for 600 guests, and spends 30% of its total budget on food. Leafy salads are offered to guests everyday reflecting their expectations of healthy choices, amounting to about US$300,000 annually. However, as part of a chain of hotels on the island, procurement is managed centrally, and they have been using the same supplier for the previous 2 years. It is the supplier’s responsibility to source vegetables when there is a local shortage. There had been problems initially over timely deliveries and also quality, with some consignments being returned, but problems had been resolved. Suppliers are visited regularly to check on quality, and each daily delivery is checked too.

The hotel has a very similar specification as the supermarket. Guests are invited to make special requests and give feedback at the end of their stay, including about the food, and the head chef is often available in the dining room for informal feedback. 

The pack house supplies a range of hotels and supermarkets using its own fleet of refrigerated vehicles. It employs 45 people, and supplements domestic supplies with imports from Egypt, South Africa and The Netherlands. “They have a core group of well trained and reliable farmers that they have been using for over two years, but they were prefer to source more vegetables locally, and would be willing to cooperate to expand their supply-base”. Local supplies are sampled and tested in a private laboratory to check for pesticide residues, and provide advice on pest management that is consistent with ecological specifications. If vegetables do not meet their customers’ specifications but are still usable, they are donated to charity homes. The pack house relies on supermarkets and hotels to tell them what their shoppers/guests want.

Eight farmers have grouped together to reduce the high costs of labour, and achieve economies of scale in mechanisation and purchasing of inputs. However, they still lack sufficient funds to build their own storage, access to technical advice, and feel there are low incentives to adopt more sustainable production practices. They harvest daily, and sell any vegetables which do not meet the pack house’s grades or is in excess of demand, is sold in the local markets. Unsaleable leaves are composted. The farmers got only transactional information from the pack house, but were due to sign a contract with the pack house which reflected a good relationship. Some input suppliers offered them low interest loans to buy bio-fertilisers and seeds.

Findings and recommendations

Chandranee concluded that, “The retailer was open to the idea of working with upstream chain members over information sharing, pooling resources or implementing quality systems, but there was less scope for the hotel management because of the centralised procurement.” 

The government has a responsibility to provide a policy and regulatory environment where members of the chain feel confident to invest in production, processing and marketing systems whose success will contribute to the country’s vision for a green economy. For example, this may facilitate the grouping of farmers into co-operatives, providing them with training and support to target growing markets for sustainably produced salad vegetables, such as for the hotel, expatriate and tourist trade. This could also have flow-on benefits. “Hotels can organise visits for the guests to the farms where the sustainable vegetables are grown and they can spent time visiting the farms and talking with the local farmers.” Over time, production could expand to other vegetables and even to exporting to other African countries. The aim should be for “value chain actors to work together to create value and reduce waste thereby improving the livelihood of all actors.”

If the pack house sought more feedback and suggestions from hotel guests and supermarket shoppers, it might well identify opportunities for developing new products. 

“To improve the flow of information between the chain and end consumers, there should be some investment in product brochures both in-store and online, encouraging scope for feedback and suggestions to inform new products.”

Both the hotel and supermarket could differentiate themselves through CSR programmes which promote their local sourcing of sustainable vegetables, including leafy salads. For the hotel, this could extend organising visits for guests to visit farmers, which might allow farmers to generate extra income by offering meals to visitors, as well as getting direct consumer feedback about ideas for diversifying into different varieties and crops.

“The government might also take more of a value chain approach. Alongside its support for increasing production, it could promote consumption of sustainable vegetables for the good of people’s healthy as well as the environment. This would also contribute to Mauritius’ strategy for promoting itself as a green tourist destination.” 

Another policy recommendation was to provide training in value chain management, and not just to farmers – “Government training usually focuses on improving production, but it would great if it could also facilitate meetings between potential value chain partners; present some consumer research and then help the chain to create a collaborative action plan.” 

pacakaged salad on shelf

Lessons

Chandranee found that tracking down who to meet, and then making appointments requires persistence, “Especially at the beginning of a project, when people can be sceptical of its potential benefits to them. You may need to invest time in explaining the bigger picture to someone in charge, but once you have them onside, they can ensure their colleagues make time to meet you.”

Logos and certifications on labels mean very little unless consumers trust them. Even government certifications need to earn this trust. 

“Upstream firms like pack houses often rely on supermarkets for feedback from shoppers rather than conducting their own consumer research. However, they need to recognize that supermarkets are dealing with thousands of products, and so have limited time and interest in particular products and how to create more value from them.”

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