“Africa must feed Africa”

Nestlé’s participation in imperial and postcolonial food engineering experiments in West Africa, 1950s-1960s

Lola Wilhelm


In March 1974, the British non-profit organisation War on Want published a pamphlet against the baby formula industry, accusing firms of «promoting their products in communities which cannot use them properly», and thus of contributing to increasing infant mortality in the Third World. Galvanized by these arguments, in 1977 a coalition of religious, feminist, and Third World advocacy organisations in the United States launched a boycott against the firm Nestlé, which at the time was believed to be the largest supplier of baby formula in the Third World. The Nestlé boycott quickly rose to the stature of a transnational cause célèbre, eventually persuading formula manufacturers to adhere to the International Code on the Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes, a non-binding set of rules brokered by the World Health Organization in 1981.

In the wake of this tumultuous episode, scholars and activists have scrutinised the (often detrimental) impacts of transnational food firms on the food culture, nutritional health, and commodity trade of the developing world (George 1977; Ziegler 1977; Raphael 1979; Harrisson 1983; Buffle 1986; Sethi 1994; Sasson 2016). Yet, the focus on this late period of the history of food firms’ involvement in the developing world has tended to overshadow the more ambivalent, long-term history of relationships between the food industry and protagonists of the food system in the colonial and postcolonial world. In this paper, I propose to show that there was a time when late colonial and early post-colonial authorities, international organisations, and scientific communities viewed transnational business’s presence and participation in this system as a promising prospect.

My lens onto this hitherto little-documented history is the food engineering projects conducted by the Swiss-based multinational food firm Nestlé, in partnership with international and imperial organisations and with postcolonial authorities in West Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. As historians of nutrition and of international organisations have shown, in that period the international nutrition agenda was dominated by the perceived problem of protein malnutrition (Black 1986; King and Ashworth 1987; Carpenter 1995; Pernet 2015; Ruxin 2016). Africa, in particular, came to be viewed as the hotbed of these conditions (Brock and Autret 1952). Against this backdrop, Nestlé became an active participants in projects that claimed to bring modernity and rationality to the food landscape of Africa, by testing new agronomic hypotheses and by trying to transform locally-available proteins using sophisticated industrial processes.

Drawing on the archives of the firm, of colonial authorities, and of international and inter-imperial organisations, the paper thus proposes to cast new light on the history of «high modernist» colonial and postcolonial development projects in Africa (Scott 1998; Tilley 2011), and in particular to address the following questions: What motives and objectives underpinned Nestlé’s decision to engage in food research for Africa? What role did international and imperial institutions play in the diffusion of Nestlé’s products in the food cultures of regions where they were previously marginal? And how did observers of these projects, including scientific experts and local populations, react to these pursuits?