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Surrounded by famine, Kenya gets a finger lickin’ option

A steady queue of a couple of 100 people wound through the atrium of Junction Shopping Mall in Nairobi’s south-east last week. After months of anticipation, excited members of Kenya’s burgeoning middle class were there to sample the country’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken in decades and happily waited more than an hour to reach the quick-service counter.

The news from East Africa is focused on the dire famine caused by one of the worst droughts in a generation and compounded by rising food prices, but a story at the other end of the food spectrum is quietly unfolding. Nairobi’s KFC is the first in the region since a previous venture was closed for failing to meet the brand’s strict international standards; dozens more will follow across Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania in the next few years. It may seem a paradox that the fast-food industry is taking off here while in other parts of the region people starve, but it’s a reflection of a side of Africa not so urgently covered by international media.

The crowd was mostly fashionable teenagers on school holidays, dressed in Levi’s and wrangling two smartphones apiece — a simcard for every occasion. Professional women and working dads with young children filled the diner; none would have seemed out of place at a suburban Westfield. I was in line behind Huzefa Amirali, a regional area employee at global telecoms services corporation Alcatel-Lucent, who reckoned the turnout was the result of “major buzz on social networking sites”. There’d been virtually no formal advertising for the event — just word-of-mouth and connected Kenyans spewing status updates and tweets in the lead-up. Huzefa’s wife had asked him to pick up one of the family value meals — they would break their Ramadan fast at sundown with Colonel Sanders’ 11 secret herbs and spices.

This venture is being keenly followed by the local business class — until recently political graft, regulation and a lack of suitable local suppliers made global franchise operations such as this  unfeasible. But now, thanks to the amenability of the new coalition government in Kenya, improved quality of local produce and promising economic growth (5.6% last year, according to the Central Bank of Kenya, with similar figures projected for its neighbours), the market can be fed. KFC’s price point is significantly higher than local competitors — a burger meal will set you back 610 Kenyan shillings (roughly $6) where a combo from local outfit Chicken Inn is closer to Ksh200 — but Huzefa reckons enough people will be willing — and able — to pay the premium. “It’s better quality and service — it will force the competition to lift their game,” he predicts. Rumour has it McDonald’s will move in next.

The franchisee, Kuku Foods Kenya Limited (“kuku” is Swahili for chicken), is a partnership between local restaurateur Gavin Bell and South African Simon Schaffer. Bell played a key role in developing the platform for franchise development in the region, while Schaffer’s family has been running KFC in South Africa for 30 years. They’d identified Kenya as the economic hub of the region’s emerging consumer market and after working hard to prove they could meet the franchiser’s requirements, have a further two outlets due to open by the end of the year.

The company has a perpetual order for four tonnes of chicken per week from Kenchic Limited — “the largest fully integrated poultry company in East and Central Africa” with farms and factories across the country. Kenchic had to invest in new machinery to satisfy KFC’s quality control standards, but is confident of a handsome payoff. The potato fries are imported from Egypt (nothing local is consistent enough) but every other item on the menu is sourced locally.

The chasm between this world and the overflowing limbo of Dadaab is uncomfortable, but many here see it as a hopeful rather than shameful contrast. As have many other Africans I’ve spoken to, Huzefa expressed frustration with being pitied by Westerners for the perceived hopelessness of his homeland. The news pictures of foreign aid workers pleading for Western donations takes over the image of a place; makes it seem all victims and despair.  None resent the media attention on the crisis — the local capacity for charity is not enough; foreign assistance remains essential and is gratefully received — but many here wish the image of their own generosity and community spirit during disaster was one the rest of the world saw too.

The skeletal horror of nomads with dead herds moves ordinary Kenyans as much as anyone else, and those who can are digging deep to help. A corporate fund-raising initiative “Kenyans4Kenya” saturating FM airwaves and social media has so far raised nore than Ksh240 million, much of it in 10-shilling denominations transferred by the mobile phone-based transaction service M-Pesa — also a Kenyan innovation. People buy badges and turn out in their thousands to send off truckloads of donated food to Turkana, proud to be able to help their countrymen at such a desperate time.

As the number of “haves” here swells and entices formerly shy investors, there is a growing continent-wide push to “rebrand” Africa abroad, as one social commentator recently put it, to “break down this enduring image of Africa as a black man on bended knee with an AK47 in one hand, a begging bowl in the other, and the details of a Swiss bank account sticking out of his back pocket”. Unfortunately, the small markers of slow progress don’t tend to make breaking news.

KFC is still an impossible luxury for an overwhelming majority of people here and it’s not without its detractors, but to many it’s a symbol of the sort of economic development that will bring benefits in ways that aid can’t.

4
  • 1
    wearestardust
    Posted Thursday, 18 August 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Two words (and one name): Amartya Sen.

  • 2
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 18 August 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Let’s all phantasise that the West finally has a moral awakening, cuts its emissions, toxic products, abolishes its armaments industries and becomes the Arcadian idyll it could be. What odds that the other 5/6ths of the world would cease trying to emulate the late 20thC megaconsumption that got us in this mess in the first place?

  • 3
    syzygium
    Posted Thursday, 18 August 2011 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    The KFC and famine in Somalia are not unrelated. As much as the middle-class of Nairobi are celebrating, this is not a good thing. Nor even a separate thing. To be brief, capital take food as cheaply as possible and deliver it where it can most value-add. In other words, take from those who can’t afford to pay and give to those who can. Check closely the history of famines throughout the world, and see what those countries are exporting.

    For those interested in learning more, I would highly recommend Mike Davis “Late Victorian Holocausts”.

  • 4
    syzygium
    Posted Thursday, 18 August 2011 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Or Amartya Sen (@ Stardust ;-) .

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