Africa’s food import bill is enormous. According to the World Bank, the total has more than tripled over the last few decades, and now sits at approximately US$35 billion a year. Among the top foods the continent imports is wheat, a commodity whose intensive water needs many countries in Africa battle to meet. While alternatives exist, they are largely underutilised.
To recognise and promote scientific research into the production and processing of non-wheat flours, international flour solutions provider MC Mühlenchemie recently hosted the inaugural Flour Innovation Award. The award aims to encourage the development of wheat flour alternatives and blends, especially those that use local commodities. Part of the motivation behind this involves helping nations to achieve greater independence from wheat and global markets.
The winning submission of this year’s award demonstrated all of these things.
Yusuf Kewuyemi, a PhD student at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), claimed the top spot for his development of a 3D-printed biscuit made from bioprocessed cowpeas and quinoa. A passionate food technologist, Yusuf based his submission on his master’s research, which focused on combining indigenous and underutilised whole beans and grains to create a flour that is nutritious and readily available, as well as 3D-printed biscuits.
Cowpea and quinoa, sorghum and sweet potatoes
Born and bred in Nigeria, Yusuf completed his undergraduate degree in food technology at the Moshood Abiola Polytechnic in Abeokuta, Ogun State, just north of Lagos, in 2018.
In 2020, shortly before the pandemic, he came to South Africa to undertake his master’s degree at UJ. His studies were completed jointly through the Food Innovation Research Group in the Department of Biotechnology and Food Technology, and the School of Tourism and Hospitality. It was here that he first started to combine bioprocessed cowpea, a legume widely found in Africa, and quinoa, a protein-rich wholegrain from South America, into 3D-printed edible biscuits.
“Quinoa isn’t indigenous to Africa, but its agronomic adaptability means that its popularity is growing across the continent,” Yusuf explains. “My research findings showed that some African countries are cultivating it and adding it to their existing grains as it contains embedded beneficial constituents. That’s partly why I was interested in using it as a composite with cowpea in my master’s research — I wanted to promote it.”
Two years later, at the start of 2022 and with his master’s complete, Yusuf began his PhD. Today, however, he’s largely stepped away from quinoa. “Now, in addition to cowpea, I’m focusing on edible crops and tuberous vegetables that are readily available in Africa, such as sorghum and orange-fleshed sweet potato,” he adds. “I want to explore how underutilised whole beans and grains and anti-obesity vegetables can help solve one of Africa’s largest health risks: the devastating rise of non-communicable diseases.”
Obesity is widespread in Africa generally and in South Africa specifically. By 2025, the prevalence of obesity in South Africa is expected to rise to 48% in women and 23% in men, likely bringing with it an increase in preventable conditions like diabetes and heart disease. “Drugs aren’t the only solution here,” Yusuf says. “Especially in countries where healthcare infrastructure is already constrained, we also have to be conscious of what we eat. We need to explore and embrace the advantages that food technology research offers.”
A new type of biscuit
At the heart of Yusuf’s award-winning (and patent-pending) innovation is a 3D-printed biscuit. A biscuit that uses bioprocesses that have existed for many years — fermentation and germination — but that Yusuf is reimagining.
“The science behind fermentation and germination isn’t new — and it’s relatively simple technology,” he explains. “But until now, we haven’t fully explored what might be involved in the development of fermented baked products, as opposed to fermented dairy products, for example.”
There’s a reason for this. “Many of the African legumes and grains that I am working with contain antinutrients that make it difficult for nutrients like protein and fibre to be absorbed by the body,” he says. “It’s what makes indigenous flours largely inferior to other wheat-based flours. The absence of gluten is a factor here, too.”
Fermentation and germination, however, help to reduce these antinutritional factors, and to promote the nutritious and health-enhancing compounds that the body needs. “Fermentation and germination enable us to produce new flours that go beyond basic nutrition and can be used in place of wheat-based flour in a variety of baked products.”
Yusuf’s approach isn’t without its challenges. The printing time is a particular issue. Depending on the size of the biscuit and the imprinted design, it can take as long as five minutes to print one biscuit. The cost of 3D printers and the technical knowledge required to use them are other hindrances that could deter food manufacturers from adopting this approach.
The final product that Yusuf’s 3D printer produces also isn’t ready to eat. It still requires a post-processing technique, such as baking or frying.
The 4IR technologies involved in this process, however, are constantly evolving. Yusuf is certain that, in time, 3D-printed food will become easier to scale and more readily available — toasters and microwaves were once new innovations, too.
African solutions to African problems
Yusuf is clear in his ambitions. In the relatively near future, he wants to make sure that fermented and germinated baked products that use indigenous African edible plant materials are made publicly available.
Another dream is to contribute to feeding Africa’s growing population, which is expected to increase to 2.5 billion people by 2050, more than 1 billion people than there are today. This growing population needs to be fed, and food technologists are in a position to help by making food products available in different forms.
“As Africans, we have to solve our problems ourselves — and the issue of wheat importation is a prime example,” he concludes. “We have the resources available to us, and by leveraging AI technologies we can create innovative food processes and products that benefit humanity at large.”
Fortunately, international awards are already acknowledging these groundbreaking interventions.