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Local packaging of foods in Ghana

Kofi Manso Essuman


Editorial comment

Those who travel regularly in developing countries will recognize the situation described in this paper; those who do not may be appalled. All, however, should realize that much can be done to improve packaging in the environment of the less developed countries at low cost. The following description of packaging used in street-corner sales in Ghana is important to bring a situation typical of a great many countries to international attention, and perhaps to help initiate actions in response.


The rapid growth of urban population and the increasing number of working women have caused changes in the eating habits of Ghanaians. Parents are often employed outside the home and children attend schools far away. Consequently, fewer people, especially in the urban areas, are eating full home-cooked meals; much food is purchased from vendors. As a result, the fast-food industry has been growing rapidly. Around offices and factories, at schools, hospitals, and commercial centres, and along virtually every street in the major towns and cities can be found food stalls, mostly operated by women. In Accra, for example, the number of restaurants, "chop bars," and food hawkers has increased rapidly in recent times.

Several attempts have been made to improve the hygienic practices of food vendors. Packaging is one area that has attracted attention because the use of suitable materials for cooked foods improves shelf-life and contributes to the wholesomeness of the products.

National and international codes of practice provide guidelines for the use of packaging materials by medium- and large-scale food manufacturers. In Ghana, however, no official regulations apply to the packaging of food at the local level; where regulations do exist, they are hardly enforced.

As a result of the growing number of urban dwellers who are becoming increasingly dependent on cooked street foods, and given the number and importance of those working in the food trade, it is important to examine the types of packaging material used by vendors and their effect on the quality of the products.

Packaging materials

Containers for food should facilitate the transport of the product, prevent its contamination or loss, and protect it against damage or degradation. Recent advances in food technology, nutrition, and marketing have added to the functions expected of packages. They should identify the product and indicate quantity, quality, and instructions for use. They should also persuade consumers to buy the product.

Packaging materials used by food vendors in Ghana include both flexible and rigid types. A large proportion of ready-to-eat foods are packed in soft or flexible materials, including broad leaves, paper, and plastic film wraps. The principal hard or rigid containers used on a large scale are glass jars and bottles. Glass-sided boxes, cane baskets, and jute or woven plastic sacks are also used in the bulk packaging of products such as gari (roasted cassava dough) and smoked fish.

TABLE 1. Types of containers and materials used by street vendors in Ghana to package foods

  Source Remarks
Glass bottles and jars Discarded stock Re-used after sale of product
Glass-sided boxes Constructed by carpenters Bulk and unwrapped items packed in boxes for storage and display
Cane baskets Woven by traditional village craft workers Bulk packing of smoked fish
—newspapers and magazines Publishers, vendors Sometimes old and dirty
—stationery Office workers, school children  
—raffle coupons National lottery, lotto players Glued together into broad sheets
Leaves and maize sheaths Forest regions, maize-growing areas Leaves deteriorate during storage; maize sheaths can be stored for months
Plastic film: Locally manufactured Available in various sizes
Sacks: jute or woven polysack Locally manufactured and discarded stock Bulk packing of gari and sugar
Large bowls, pots, pans, trays Locally manufactured Bulk storage and display of cooked foods—e. g. rice, beans

TABLE 2. Products packaged in glass bottles or jars

  Characteristics Remarks
Pito Alcoholic beverage brewed from sorghum (local beer) Bottled after brewing with no cover
Palm wine Alcoholic drink from the palm tree Bottled after tapping with no cover
Iced water  
Iced kenkey Kenkey mashed in water and sweetened Bottled after preparation and chilled
Hausa beer Spicy, sweet, non-alcoholic drink Bottled and sometimes covered with folded paper
Akpeteshie Local gin distilled from palm wine or sugar-cane Bottled and stored for long periods
Tigernut milk Sweetened tigernut extract curdled by boiling Kept in jars without covers

Packaging in hard containers

Jars and bottles

Glass containers used for food include old jars and bottles that originally held manufactured products such as beer, soft drinks, creams, and pomade. They are obtained from dealers in discarded containers, who collect them from homes and, in some cases, from refuse dumps. Jars and bottles are used even if they have minor defects at the top. They do not have any special crown or cover.

In general, the foods packaged in bottles and jars contain natural or added sugar and therefore attract flies. Unfortunately, the products are not sterilized before or after packaging and may remain uncovered during sale. With the exception of akpe-teshie, which is a strong liquor, the products have a very short shelf-life at ambient temperatures and are meant to be sold within a day.

Glass containers are re-used as long as they remain undamaged. They do not react with foods and can be washed. Products packed in glass have an aesthetic appeal; but, because of the inadequate supply of water in many Ghanaian homes and the low level of sanitation, the washing of these containers is ineffective.

Products sold in glass containers are not labelled. Purchase and use, therefore, depend on previous experience with or knowledge of the foods.

Glass-sided boxes

A variety of ready-to-eat foods are displayed for sale in large boxes with transparent glass sides. Over the last few years these boxes have become popular for the sale of pastries and other fried or baked foods. These items previously were kept in open trays, large pans, and bowls, and many vendors still use these containers.

The base and top of the boxes are made of wood, which holds one or more glass walls in place. The boxes are available in sizes of about 20 x 30 cm with a height of 10 to 30 cm or larger. They may be opened either at the top or from the sides. Nylon mosquito netting is sometimes used in place of glass.

These boxes protect the food from flies and dirt. This has improved the way in which foods are displayed to customers. However, it may be warm and damp inside the boxes, and frequent opening and closing admits flies. Also, the foods may be handled many times by different customers for inspection before purchase. Such practices provide avenues for contamination and microbial growth.

TABLE 3. Products displayed in class-sided boxes

  Characteristics Remarks
Pastries Cakes, doughnuts, buns Sold wrapped in paper
Confectionery Milk toffees, roasted groundnut or copra candy  
Fula Cooked millet dough moulded into balls Made into a sweetened drink after purchase
Fried foods Plantains, yams, etc. Sold wrapped in paper
Tigernut milk (See table 2) Jars kept in glass sided boxes.

TABLE 4. Products packaged in leaves

  Characteristics Remarks
Fante kenkey Cooked, fermented maize dough Wrapped in plantain leaves before cooking
Ga kenkey Similar to fante kenkey Wrapped in maize sheaths before cooking
Abolo Baked or steamed maize dough Cooked in leaves of Thespesia populnea
Apitsi Mixture of baked ripe plantain and maize flour Baked and sold in T. populnea leaves
Agidi Light maize product for invalids Wrapped in leaves of Marantoclea spp. soon after cooking
Etsew Another type of fante kenkey Wrapped in plantain leaves after cooking
Cooked rice, beans   Stored in large pan; small quantities wrapped in T. populnea leaves when sold

Packaging in flexible materials


Most traditional maize products consumed in southern Ghana are wrapped in leaves. Leaves commonly used for wrapping food include those of Thespesia populnea (Malvaceae family), Marantoclea spp. (Marantaceae family), and the plantain (Musa paradisiaca) and the sheaths of maize (corn, Zea mays).

Some items are packaged raw before cooking. Others are wrapped in the leaves immediately after cooking, while they are still hot. In the preparation of fante kenkey, a maize product, for example, the raw dough is wrapped completely in four or five layers of brown plantain leaves before cooking. For ga kenkey the raw dough is incompletely wrapped in a single layer of maize sheaths. Portions of the dough remain exposed and may be lost in the water during cooking.

Boiling or baking sterilizes foods pre-packaged in leaves. Fante kenkey, for example, has a shelf life of five to seven days, but other products such as ga kenkey and abolo store for only two or three days because of incomplete wrapping, which results in recontamination and spoilage, especially by moulds.

Products wrapped in leaves after cooking generally have a shelf-life of only two days. Etsew (another form of fante kenkey) and agidi, which are wrapped while hot in plantain leaves and the leaves of Marantoclea spp. respectively, can be stored for three days. Cooked rice and beans are stored in bulk in a large pan and sold wrapped in the leaves of T. populnea. They cannot be stored for more than 12 hours in the leaf.

Leaves for packaging are poorly handled and transported. They are often dirty and are kept in the open with little or no provision for washing before use. They may therefore be a source of microbial contamination of food.

When broad leaves are stored for more than a week they deteriorate through drying out or decay. Maize sheaths, however, can be stored for several months and are the only type of leaf that is sometimes retrieved and re-used for packaging.


Paper is used extensively to package a variety of ready-to-eat foods, with newsprint the most commonly used (see table 1). Paper wrappers are not pre-formed into any shape, but pieces are torn from a bigger sheet depending on the type of product. A few vendors, however, package popcorn in well-designed, cone-shaped paper containers.

From the point of view of sanitation, the quality of paper is generally poor. Any old newspaper, multi-wall Portland cement sacks, magazines, and old stationery from schools and offices are used. The paper is not stored properly and cannot be cleaned. Such poor hygienic practices coupled with the harmful effect of printing ink make the use of paper for wrapping food a health hazard.

The foods that are wrapped in paper are normally displayed in a pan, tray, or transparent glass box, and are wrapped in paper when purchased (table 5). The paper facilitates handling of the product but provides very little protection from damage or spoilage. Parcels may be loose and the food can easily spill out.

Paper is also used as a secondary packaging material for some pre-packaged products such as kenkey.

TABLE 5. Products packaged in paper

  Characteristics Remarks
Bread From wheat flour  
Fish Smoked or fried  
Ripe plantain Roasted or fried  
Pastries Doughnuts, meat pies, cakes  
Meat Fried turkey tail, chicken, pork  
Yam Fried or roasted  
Ground-nuts Roasted  
Popcorn Roasted maize Sometimes packaged in a special cone-shaped paper container

TABLE 6. Products packaged in polythene bags

  Characteristics Remarks
Bread   Usually packaged by the retailer
Confectionery Milk toffees Plain sheets wrapped around candy and knotted
Ice follies Frozen sweets (home-made ice cream) Plastic cups normally used
Ground-nuts Roasted For both bulk storage and small retail units
Popcorn Roasted maize  
Gari Roasted cassava dough  
Sugar Granulated Packaged in small units for retail
Nmadaa Non-alcoholic maize drink Normally served in cups
Iced water   Normally served in cups or bottles

Plastic bags

Transparent plastic film formed into bags is becoming increasingly important in the packaging of a variety of foods. Low-density polyethylene (commonly called polythene) is the best known. The adoption of these bags in packaging has significantly improved the display of ready-to-eat foods from aesthetic and hygienic points of view. Unfortunately, many food vendors are not familiar with the suitability or otherwise of the various types of plastic films for different products. This can lead to deterioration in the quality of the foods.

Polythene bags are manufactured locally and are available in different sizes, ranging from narrow strips of 3 x 5 cm to larger bags measuring 25 x 40 cm. These film wraps are desirable for packaging food because they are much less permeable to water vapour and gases than paper and leaves and are chemically inactive with food. They are used to package both solid and liquid foods.

Polythene bags are useful for dry products such as gari, sugar, coffee, and cocoa power, as the items remain dry for a long time if properly sealed. Since heat-sealing devices are not readily available to many vendors, the open ends of the bags are usually tied into firm knots after the food is inserted.

Bread and other pastries are packed in polythene bags on a large scale. Many vendors expose their products to the sun while sealed in the bags. Moisture condenses inside the bags, and this facilitates mould growth. Sometimes air is blown into bags with the mouth to open them. This introduces vapour and microorganisms, which sets the stage for spoilage when foods are placed in the bags.

Home-made ice follies, which are commonly frozen in plastic cups, and beverages such as nmadaa, normally served in calabashes, are now sometimes packaged in small polythene bags for sale. Iced water is also sold in plastic bags by some vendors in response to official directives aimed at curbing the unhygienic practice of using a single cup to distribute water to many customers. The use of polythene bags to package liquids has not been very successful, however, because defects in the bags frequently lead to spillage.

Some vendors package vegetables such as carrots, cabbages, and tomatoes in polythene bags with tied ends. This speeds the rate of deterioration since the exchange of moisture and gas with the atmosphere is cut off.

Heavier-weight polyethylene film wraps have limited application for street foods except for bulk packaging, or covering such items as ga kenkey, boiled sweet corn, porridge, and others that require heat and moisture to be retained.

Discussion and conclusions

Local food processing in Ghana is laborious and requires the use of large quantities of fuel per batch of food. Only limited amounts of a particular product can be prepared at a time, all of which needs to be sold within a day or two to avoid spoilage.

The packages of most ready-to-eat foods primarily serve as containers for the products. They are normally not intended as a means of extending shelf-life. Suitable food packaging can preserve most products and help to reduce the drudgery of preparing small batches of food every day. For example, it takes a family of five people up to 10 hours to complete the entire process of baking bread from a 50kg bag of flour. In the absence of packaging, the loaves go mouldy after three days. As a result, bakers do not risk baking more than can be sold within that time. Good packaging could extend shelf-life and permit more of a product to be processed.

The development of suitable packaging materials for most traditional staples is hampered by the lack of standards. Variations exists in the composition, shape, weight, and methods of preparation of products from different sources, and it is not easy to design simple, inexpensive, ready-made containers for such a wide range of items. Also, for a package to be readily acceptable, it must be relatively cheap. Unfortunately, the packaging industry in Ghana is not well developed to meet these demands.

Even at the industrial level packaging contributes significantly to the cost of production. As a result, many local industries use cheap, poorly designed packages. Local processors can hardly afford to add any extra cost to their overhead. One advantage of traditional packaging materials is their relatively low cost and ready availability.

Virtually all food products packaged by local processors and vendors are unlabelled. No indication is given of the name of the product, its source, or its composition, nor any information on appropriate storage conditions or instructions for use. This is one reason street foods are displayed open and unwrapped. Sellers and consumers alike take this for granted, but, as the trend toward consumption of fast-foods grows, laws need to be introduced to control various aspects of processing. Such laws should apply equally to the large-scale and local sectors of the food industry. It is important, therefore, to conduct studies into traditional packaging materials and how they can be improved to suit modern trends. Areas that should be explored include controlled-atmosphere and vacuum packing using sterilizable, flexible pouches of materials such as aluminium-foil laminates to enhance shelf-life and make products safe and visually appealing.

The local sector will dominate the food industry in Ghana for a long time and remain a major source of meals for many people. But this significant role is adversely affected by poor hygiene and the lack of suitable packaging materials. Therefore, investment in the packaging industry is necessary in order to support local food processing.

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