The International Trade Centre (ITC) on Monday urged Zambia's small and medium enterprises to improve packaging standards to make their products more competitive on international markets and also called for more investment into local packaging centres for agri-food processors.
Speaking at the opening of the World Export Development Forum in the capital Lusaka, ITC deputy executive director Dorothy Tembo said agri-food and agri-business sectors, which contribute the most to the formal and informal economy, faced stiff competition from imported processed and packaged foods.
Reducing these distortions and providing information and advice on good packaging materials should be a major priority, she said.
"It is the packaging that a customer sees first and it is the packaging that protects, improves food safety, demonstrates market conformity, conveys value, and differentiates between similar products," said Tembo.
"Packaging and labelling can make the difference between a sale or no sale, a profit or loss, and have an impact that reverberates along the whole chain right up to the farmers."
She noted that enterprises across Africa faced higher costs for lower standards of packaging materials than their counterparts in almost any other part of the world – with packaging and labelling costing more than 12 percent of all production costs - against eight percent on average in other countries.
In some countries, import tariffs raised the cost of packaging materials even higher.
The ITC is a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization which works to build the competitiveness of SMEs in developing countries and to connect them to international markets.
Tembo said seven studies completed by the ITC in sub-Saharan Africa's leading agri-food processing countries found that there were hardly any packaging and labelling advisory, design, testing or information services accessible and affordable for SMEs across the region.
"In recognition of this fact, the project allocated resources to provide, preliminary training to establish more than 40 packaging advisers and trainers in beneficiary countries, including here in Zambia, and direct training to SME food processors," she said.
"However, this is just a small drop in a very large ocean of need and we will be calling upon the donor community, the packaging industry, research institutions and impact investors to help to develop real capacity in this important area – both for enterprise growth, and the sustainability of the planet."