A young female food technologist seeking to progress in what has traditionally been a male-dominated gas industry might have a tough time, but not Air Products’ Nelisiwe ‘Neli’ Dlamini.

The company states that Dlamini has been winning customers over for the past four years, helping to create new markets for modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) in Air Products’ specialty gases division.

As an ambassador for MAP, which is widely used in the food industry, Dlamini has thrown her considerable passion and talents into business development for Air Products’ Freshline® range of food gases. This has gone from strength to strength since she took up the job of Product Specialist at Air Products South Africa four years ago.

With a solid background in food technology and a passionate proponent of good management practise (GMP), Dlamini admits to being single-minded when it comes to getting what she wants. She also sees the fact that she is a woman as a decided advantage in her day-to-day job.

Dlamini, who proudly hails from Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), remembers having a fascination with how food is processed and produced, since she was a young child.

“I had this deep desire to know how cornflakes and polony were made! Luckily, I was blessed with a wonderful career guidance teacher at school - a woman who told me I could be whatever I wanted to be - and who encouraged me find out more about food technology,” she enthuses.

Dlamini, armed with a National Diploma in Food Technology from KZN Technikon (now Durban University of Technology), started her career in yeast manufacturing at Anchor and from there joined Tiger Brands as a Lab Analyst. A stint at Amalgamated Beverage Industries (ABI) as Quality Assurance (QA) Technologist and serving as a consultant in her own business also prepared Dlamini for her current role at Air Products South Africa.

As product specialist Dlamini advises customers on best practice in terms of hygiene, and how to optimise MAP technology for their purposes by taking measures such as creating the correct ambient temperature. She also does verifications for her food customers, ensuring they are using the correct gases, gas mixtures and equipment for their particular application. Leveraging off her good relationships with various equipment suppliers, Dlamini spends much of her day networking with food manufacturers and retailers, offering tailor-made solutions in MAP technology.

“MAP adds value for both the end-user and the retailer. South Africans are becoming increasingly conscious of the quality of the food they eat, avoiding chemical additives as far as possible. MAP is the healthiest way of extending the shelf life of fresh foods,” she advises.

MAP technology involves the use of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen, and products are packaged in a single gas or a combination of these three gases, depending on the physical and chemical properties of the food. While oxygen is generally excluded from pre-packed food because of oxidative spoilage, it is used in controlled quantities to maintain the fresh, natural colour of red meat. Carbon dioxide inhibits the growth of most aerobic bacteria and mould; and nitrogen extends the shelf life of fresh produce with high water content, such as pre-packed lettuce.

“MAP was predominantly used in the meat industry, but now has wide application in a number of areas, including bakery goods, fresh produce, ready-meals and snacks. Not only does MAP increase the shelf-life of foods, it helps to maintain the integrity and the appearance of fresh food, making it more attractive to the consumer. It also leads to a reduction in labour costs (with less time packing and re-packing shelves) and a reduction in food and packaging wastage,” Dlamini says.

As an equal opportunities employer, Air Products South Africa has created a non-discriminatory environment, and Dlamini has encountered no gender-related issues in her job, or in her industry.