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close this book Food chain - Number 19 - November 1996
View the document Contents
View the document Greetings
View the document Food processing training - some problems and possible solutions
View the document Booklines
View the document Principles of food dehydration
View the document Simple methods of quality assurance
View the document Research notes
View the document Food preservation by the Turkana people.
View the document Ayib (traditional cheese)

Food processing training - some problems and possible solutions

In this article, Dr Peter Fellows describes his observations and experiences of food processing training programmes in Africa and Asia during the last 10 years. He has spent 15 years as a trainer in food processing, initially involved in university training at post-graduate and undergraduate levels and external examining for MSc and PhD candidates. For the last ten years he has worked on the design of practically based training courses for developing countries, design of training centres, preparation and implementation of TOT courses and design and implementation of integrated training programmes for small-scale food enterprise development.

Over the last decade, food processing has increasingly been seen as an important area for rural development, improved food security and small enterprise development by international donors, national Government agencies and NGOs. Because food processing requires a multi-disciplinary approach for sustainable implementation, involving sciences (such as bio-chemistry, engineering and microbiology), social aspects (for example food preference) and economic aspects (such as import substitution, marketing and financial management), in nearly all cases, training is one of the first areas that is implemented in a development project. Most intended beneficiaries are either farmers, householders or existing/aspiring small-scale entrepreneurs and in many programmes there is a focus on women, who are said to find food processing an easily accessible option for improving household incomes or food security.

It is recognized that many people know how to process traditional foods for consumption in the home or for immediate sale to neighbours, and that training in improved storage for food security is therefore able to readily build on existing knowledge. However, in small enterprise development, the concept of producing a packaged product for distant sale and consumption by unknown people is new to many intended beneficiaries. Therefore training programmes are required to introduce unfamiliar ideas such as standardized production and packaging, marketing, production monitoring and control of finances.

However, many training programmes fall short of expectations because of a lack of planning, a lack of understanding of participants' needs or a lack of skills and experience by trainers. In this article, I shall attempt to highlight some of the most common failings and suggest ideas that can be used to improve the quality of food processing training, mainly with a focus on enterprise development courses.


One of the most difficult and intractable problems facing trainers is to deliver training at a level that is appropriate to the needs of participants. Too frequently a food scientist or technologist appears more interested in demonstrating to the trainees how much they know about their subject, rather than listening to what the trainees want to learn. As a result the trainees are 'blinded by science' and emerge from the course having learned little and believing that food processing is a very difficult subject.

To overcome this problem, a first step is to conduct a detailed training needs assessment. This may involve a formal questionnaire of intended participants, but could equally be done by informal visits and discussions with a representative sample of people, to find out what are their main problems and what do they want to learn on a training programme. This can then be used to guide the trainer in course design, content and training methods. Additionally, the results will indicate the most acceptable duration for the training and whether it should be held in a single block or divided into short components, spread over several weeks remember that most participants will have many demands on their time. It should be noted however, that many potential trainees will focus on their lack of knowledge of how a particular food is made or what type of equipment is needed, as they may not be aware of other aspects that are involved in operating a successful food processing venture. The trainer should therefore be ready to introduce ideas such as contracts with suppliers, conducting market research, calculating the sale price, arranging agreements with retailers etc. during the discussions, to determine whether participants consider these to be important for them. In short, the trainer should have a good understanding of the participants' specific needs, in order to design and implement a course that meets these needs.


Once a trainer has an understanding of the areas to be covered on the course and the depth of the knowledge that is required by participants to meet their needs, the next problem is how to implement the training. In too many cases, trainers believe that they are the fount of all wisdom on a particular subject and if they talk to participants for long enough, some of this wisdom will somehow become absorbed. The result is hour upon hour of a trainer standing and talking in front of rows of seated people, many of whom are gradually falling asleep and none of whom are learning very much.

I believe that the two most important factors in implementing a training programme are first to involve people doing rather than listening and secondly to structure the programme in a way that participants can learn from each other's experience and knowledge - in other words to implement a participative approach to training. This approach is feared by many trainers either because they are afraid that they may be asked a question to which they do not know the answer (and therefore lose the respect of participants), or secondly because they are not in constant control of the group and cannot predict what will happen during a session.

In response to these genuine fears, it is usually necessary to first conduct a Training of Trainers (TOT) course. When done properly, this will give trainers a new confidence in their own abilities and encourage them to loosen control of the training process. It will also give them a range of new (to them) training techniques to add to their armoury which will encourage participation. Together these outcomes of a TOT course will result in a more relaxed and confident trainer, who is able to guide group discussions, exercises and teamwork that promote better and longer lasting learning by participants.


So much for how training is conducted, and now on to the topics to be covered. Too frequently a training course only addresses participants' wishes to learn how to make a product. If someone had given me a dollar every time I have been asked 'please teach me how to make mango jam' I would be very wealthy by now!

In the selection of products le.. include, a trainer needs to have an awareness of the local market for different foods and advise trainees that for some there is either little demand or very high levels in competition - either of which would make their business more difficult than for other products. Ideally, the products selected for a training programme should all be potentially capable of supporting a successful small business. Where data on demand is not readily available, the trainers should conduct their own preliminary market surveys to gain an idea about which products are likely to be successful.

Similarly on the training course itself, many trainers only include the production technology and quality control? ignoring the commercial realities of production and the socio-economic environment in which an entrepreneur will operate. While it is true that a high quality product is preferable to a poor quality food, there should also be a detailed understanding of how to sell the product, who will buy it and how much will they pay for it - in other words market research should be the starting point when considering which food to include in a training programme.

If there is a little demand for a food or if other producers are already successfully meeting the demand, it is in my opinion, irresponsible for trainers to raise the expectations of participants by teaching them how to make the food and implying that they could operate successfully. A more likely result is that at best, new producers will put their training into practice, invest in their business and fail, losing their money in the process. At worst, new producers will copy existing products, but then make them to a lower quality to reduce costs and compete more effectively. This causes customers to mistrust the entire range of the particular product, including the original successful small businesses and stop buying it. Then the whole market collapses, causing original producers and newcomers to fail together.

So a training course should give equal, if not more attention, to business aspects such as market research, production planning, marketing/selling, agreements with suppliers and retailers, financial management, preparation of feasibility studies etc. In my experience, this may take up to 6070 per cent of a course, with only 30-40 per cent devoted to the technical issues. Additionally, the business areas are not only the ones that participants require greatest assistance with, but they are also the ones the food scientists and technologists have least competence in dealing with. In such situations it is necessary to employ a business trainer who has experience of small enterprise development, to work alongside technical trainers.

Market research should be the starting point when considering which food to include in a training programme.


Last but not least, the training environment is particularly important when conducting courses for small-scale food processors. Here there is a dilemma that many trainers fail to recognize. On the one side there is a need for production facilities to he clean and hygienic - both to maintain the quality of the products, and in many countries to meet health and hygiene legislation. However, the route used by many trainers to achieve this is to go to a university or similar institution and hire their pilot plant for the course. Alternatively, those organizations that are well funded may import shiny new stainless steel processing equipment and put it into a sparkling new tiled room, complete with air conditioning and hot running water.

While this will meet the legislative requirements, it will also frighten any small producer who sets foot into the training room. The obvious reaction of a trainee would be 'if this is what is needed to do food processing, how could I ever afford the investment to get started' or more likely these people do not understand the situation that I am in, so how is this training going to he relevant to me'. Expensive and inappropriate facilities and equipment therefore have the effect of making trainees distrust their trainer's understanding of their needs and make the trainers, job more difficult before they have even started.

A compromise is possible in which a building has the correct design and construction to meet legal requirements without making it so expensive that it is beyond the reach of participants (including for example, drainage channels built into the floor, sloping window sills and a sealed ceiling to prevent dust accumulations, sealed concrete walls and floors, walls painted instead of tiles etc.). A Technical Brief on the subject of appropriate building design for food processing is available from Intermediate Technology and this is equally suitable to the design of an appropriate food processing training room. An alternative, when funds are not available to construct a training room, is to pay a local entrepreneur to use the production facilities for the training course. In this case, the entrepreneur will require assurance that you are not training competitors, but this should be possible if trainees come from another district, as few small businesses have widespread distribution of their products to distant markets.

Similar considerations apply to the selection of equipment. It is usually possible to import small-scale equipment from industrialized countries and in many cases this has desirable benefits in demonstrating design concepts or meeting a need when no locally manufactured alternatives are available. However, a more sustainable approach is to contract local metal fabrication workshops to build items of equipment for the courses, providing designs and photographs where possible to assist them. This not only gives the workshops some welcome promotion for their products, but makes available more affordable and repairable equipment for food processing entrepreneurs when they begin production. This approach also stimulates the local engineering workshop sector and diversifies the benefits of training.

In Uganda and Ghana, Midway has taken this a stage further and now holds courses for engineers in 'Design and Manufacture of Food Processing Equipment' alongside food processing courses, thus putting manufacturers and potential customers directly in touch with each other. This concept of 'Sustainable Alliances' between different sub-sectors is a central theme of Midway's approach to development and will feature in a forthcoming article in Food Chain.

There is much more that can be said about good training, including both the essential requirement for follow-up and refresher training and the need for participants to practice their new skills/knowledge and make mistakes without financial risk within the safe environment of a training programme. But in conclusion to this article, we can note that there is much bad practice in food processing training, caused in particular by trainers failing to take account of the needs of participants and the focus on traditional teaching methods that maintain their position of authority and control. To be successful and produce sustainable benefits for participants, training courses should carefully identify their training needs and then design courses and facilities that are appropriate to meet those needs. is never a simple matter and I am wary of those who say that training is easy... it often indicates that they are not doing a good job!

Dr Fellows is a director of Midway Technology and can be contacted via their office at St Oswalds Barn, Clifford, Hay on Wye, Hereford, UK

A compromise is possible in which a building has the correct design and construction to meet legal requirements without making it so expensive that it is beyond the reach of participants