Food supplements are making millions for importers and retailers as increasing numbers of users turn to them both for their health benefits and body building purposes. For Mitiku Negatu, who moved from the US engage in this business, sales have skyrocketed since he established his company, Mete Nutrition Import Plc, two years ago. The number of products officially registered by the Food Medicine & Health Care Administration & Control Authority (FMHACCA) has also grown from just four in 2011 to 41 in 2014.
Mitiku learned from a friend while he was still in the US that food supplements were money makers. He took a health course and moved to Ethiopia, where he is selling products he is importing from NutraBound, a US-based manufacturer that has registration for vitamins, proteins, zinc and iron products. These products are now available in most drug stores for prices ranging from 350 Br to 1,400 Br per bottle.
Others in the business include Tiens Ethiopia Group Plc and Prime Enguday Plc. Tiens was established by Suad Muktar, a health officer who shifted her business from the medical industry to the wellness industry.
“Prevention is cheaper,” says Suad, claiming that is what her products do.
Her company has been involved in aggressive marketing for over 10 years, now achieving monthly sales of five million Birr, she said.
While business is good, there are some concerns about possible impacts including those stemming from the misuse of food supplements.
“There has been little regulation of these products in the Ethiopian market. They have limits and guidelines for their use,” said Dagmawit Nigatu, a food registration & licensing expert at FMHACA. Those who sell these products need to hire health professionals in order to be able to explain to buyers more about the products they are buying,” she added.
Mitiku has done just that at Mete Nutrition Import.
“Nutrition has limited uses and we must know how much vitamins, proteins or any other nutrition type our body requires,” he said, indicating that he had employed health graduates to help sell the 25 types of products he avails.
Suad also says she hires health professionals to conduct her business, as well as to conduct continuous training to the people selling her products. Scheduled training is also offered to distributors one to three times a week by Prime Enguday, importers of the Malaysian DXN products. Their courses last for an hour or two and cover topics from product details to marketing strategies. But again, there is no way to track which agents have received how much and which training.
Article 39, of the Proclamation 661, a proclamation to provide for food, medicine and health care administration and control, discusses “Prescribing and Dispensing of Medicines”. It says that medicines shall be dispensed by medical professionals, and its definition of medicine covers traditional, complementary and alternative medicine. However, it is evident that not all agents are equipped to advise the consumer making a purchase and not all customers are happy.
Meaza Tassew, in her early 40s, bought a 450 Br vial of vanilla flavoured meal replacement, hoping to lose weight. She had relied on the druggist’s explanation, since she could not read English. One vial later, she had lost nothing. She did not go back to the drug store but took her complaint to the importer of the product. Dagmawit’s argument was therefore supported by this consumer, who expressed dissatisfaction with the results of her purchase.
“Now this girl is telling me that I had been using the replacement the wrong way all along. It is really annoying that I wasted my money for no change,” she said angrily.
But not all customers were disappointed with the outcome of their purchases. A rather satisfied customer, Tadios Alemu needed to gain weight and be stronger, and said that he had attained both goals.
“I used to be so thin and always get sick because I did not have resistance to disease and less appetite for food; but using meal replacement chocolate protein for a year, I have gained weight and never got sick, not even cold,” he said.
Nutrition imports like Daily Care Gold, Ginseng and Omega 3 have the advantage of compensating for the absence of sufficient vitamins and minerals in the daily diet and therefore help the body to resist disease and maintain mental faculties, Mitiku explained. And demand is growing fast.
“The products do not usually stay long in the shop,” said Betelhem Hagere, a pharmacist at Gishen Pharmacy on Roosevelt Street. “Our customers are usually athletes,” she said as she strongly supported the use of alternative nutritional products. “If more people consumed these food supplements, it would be better for them, as the food around may not be highly nutritional,” she advised.
Meeting the rising demand are 13 companies licensed by the Authority to provide nutrition and legal drugs. Among the 13, companies like Tiens Ethiopia Group Plc and Prime Enguday Plc, have their own shops but their marketing strategy differs. They use direct selling methods and offer five kinds of products compared to Mete’s 25.
Other companies like Meditech Ethiopia and Beker General Business Plc are also engaged in nutrition import but they also import medicines having a licence for both.
In considering applications for licensing such importers the Authority reviews storage conditions such as having enough sunlight, air and also cold chain facilities. In addition to the cleanness of the environment it must also be free from hazardous chemicals or any other possible contaminants.
The importer should provide a copy of the certificate of the manufacturer that shows that if the manufacturer is known or certified by licensing authorities at the point of origin. Importers must also provide a packing list as well as the contract between the two companies. In order to cross check this, the local Authority also conducts online research concerning the product, Dagmawit told Fortune.
In addition, at the port, the Authority has inspection experts who control the product by cross checking with the list for which the importer has been certified. Besides, the inspectors also check that the labelling is readable and in a language that the customer can easily understand.
“We do have a series of control mechanisms at ports, with inspectors who are health care experts. Every single product will be examined according to the level they have registered in our office,” Dagmawit said. “Even local language labels are being considered,” she added.
This is important because, as Mitiku explained, the products are sensitive and could be a danger for the user if not transported and stored in an environment that meets their requirements for effectiveness.
“I prefer using a shipping line that has refrigerator facilities, than those which don’t, because I should not be concerned if the products will lose their shelf life due to bad transportation amenities,” he added.
But the Ethiopian Shipping Lines & Logistic Service Enterprise has not yet not introduced such amenities.
The Authority, which also has the also the mandate for registration, licensing and inspection of medical centres and pharmaceuticals, besides the food and food supplements, is directly in charge of certifying and controlling of these importers. It has a written directive and principle to visit and make follow up checks and observations every two months. However, such visits are made only two to four times annually.
“Unless our schedule is tight and we do have less manpower, we make four kinds of visit to such shops,” Dagmawit said.
These include the sudden (unannounced) and the routine inspections, as well as visits for licence renewal and inspections they make when complaints are reported.
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