Big plans for the safety, quality of indigenous foods

Professor Firibu Saalia of the University of Ghana’s School of Engineering Sciences in Accra is one of 10 research chair holders of the OR Tambo Africa Research Chairs Initiative announced in October 2020. He was awarded for his ground-breaking work in the processing, safety and quality of food.

The OR Tambo Africa Research Chairs Initiative (ORTARChI) is funded through a partnership between South Africa’s National Research Foundation and the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation, the International Development Research Centre in Canada and the national research grant-making councils of the countries that host the chair holders.

Saalia, the chair in food science and technology, and his peers will share about US$15 million over the next five years.

As part of a series of interviews with the chair holders, University World News spoke to him about his work to innovate food safety and quality.

UWN: Where did you grow up and attend primary and secondary school?

Saalia: I grew up in many parts of Ghana. I was born in the Ashanti region. I started primary school in Wa, did part of my secondary school education (O levels) in Nandom Secondary School in the upper West region and A Levels in Mawuli School, Ho in the Volta region.

UWN: At school, was there any specific moment that placed you on the path to becoming a research chair?

Saalia: Not really. I was focused on doing well in my O and A level examinations.

UWN: Where did you do your undergraduate studies, and in what field?

Saalia: At the University of Ghana, Legon, Accra. I graduated with a BSc degree in biochemistry and food science.

UWN: How did your undergraduate studies prepare you for research and when did you become interested in your current specialisation area?

Saalia: An undergraduate degree in biochemistry and food science involved a great deal of laboratory work. We spent a great deal of time in the lab running experiments and writing laboratory reports, almost on daily basis. There were always strict timelines to submit the reports.

By the time of graduation, spending time in the lab was almost a lifestyle. After graduation I was fortunate to be selected to work as a research assistant in the department of nutrition and food science in fulfilment of the mandatory one-year national service for all graduating students.

I worked closely with Professor Samuel Sefa-Dedeh [of the department of nutrition and food science at the University of Ghana] who was then running a number of collaborative research projects on Ghanaian traditional foods.

UWN: What could be done to develop research capacity at undergraduate level?

Saalia: Teaching of the basic sciences needs to be strengthened and supported with good laboratory facilities and equipment for experiments and demonstrations.

Class sizes should not be too large for effective instruction and demonstration. Programmes (such as special grants or funds) and packages to motivate and acknowledge deserving faculty and students should also be encouraged.

UWN: Why is your field of research important?

Saalia: The economy of my country and much of the sub-region is strongly agriculture- based, and provides employment for a huge part of the population.

Strengthening the post-harvest value chain will help to improve food and nutrition security and strengthen the economy.

We are currently working on strategies to strengthen the value chain in our food systems, particularly the post-harvest handling and transformation of foods to enhance safety and quality with minimal wastage.

UWN: What would you be researching or what problem would you want to solve?

Saalia: We will be working on innovations for enhanced food safety and food quality improvement of Ghanaian indigenous foods to achieve food security.

Technological advances in agricultural production have far outmatched technologies in the agro-processing industry in Ghana and the sub-region.

Most food-processing activities are still informal and are dominated by inefficient artisanal processes with an estimated 40% of food losses occurring post-harvest and during processing.

Reduction of food losses through adoption of cost-effective innovations will contribute to food security and impact sustainable national development.

Additionally, eradication of hunger and achieving food security are priority areas of the African Union’s Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy (STISA-2024) for attaining continental development goals. It is also a strategy to enhance food security in line with the ORTARChI’s objectives.

UWN: How do you see your research developing, thanks to this award?

Saalia: Our research vision is to train a cadre of food scientists and food process engineers at the graduate level (MPhil and PhD) to combine science, technology, engineering and social systems to address existing challenges in food systems and transform indigenous foods into globally acceptable and competitive products.

Our research activities will update traditional food processing techniques, promote entrepreneurship and, overall, enhance food and nutrition security. It is envisaged that the overall outcome of the project will be transferable to other countries in the sub-region.

Findings from the research activities are expected to help impact national food policy through collaborations with government agencies and ministries.

UWN: What are your priorities as the chair?

Saalia: A key deliverable will be the development of engineering systems for the enhancement of indigenous technologies for processing, packaging and assurance of food safety and quality for traditional foods.

An important output will be the training of many graduate students with competencies in engineering systems.

UWN: What would you be able to do with the grant that was not possible in the past?

Saalia: Establish a research programme that is focused on the training of graduate students on innovations in the traditional food delivery systems, and make the processing and distribution of our traditional food products more efficient and more competitive.