Sitting around a table over a bucket of chicken, a family-size portion of fries and a two-litre Coke are three men. They happily munch away on their feast over conversation and upbeat pop music that plays in the background.
These are customers at a new branch of a global food chain that is expanding in the region.
Kenya has become a hub for investment and the better travelled citizens with advanced palettes and expensive tastes expect to find the basics from fast food and desserts to gourmet meals in their home ground.
East Africa’s largest economy is now in the league of the world’s lower middle-income nations, having crossed the United Nation’s $1,045 gross domestic product (GDP) per capita threshold with a September 2014 fresh computation of data, also known as rebasing.
In the past four to five years, there has been increased activity in the food industry with local and international franchises bringing in an array of menu offerings to tantalise the taste buds of local as well as international residents.
The menus for some of these franchises have been adapted to local tastes. For example, ugali is an offering you would be hard-pressed to find at a KFC in Europe or US but walk into any KFC in the city and you will find it served as plain ugali or ugali nuggets, which have been adopted in other markets too.
Ugali in Kenya may be compared to rice in Japan. The meal option is offered as a substitute to French fries, making it not only a healthier but also a cheaper option.
Kachumbari burgers are not a global phenomenon, but in Kenya, they form part of some meals. The tomato and onion salsa has been turned into a sauce by the local arm of Steers to entice local diners.
At Domino’s Pizza, the popular Swahili Pizza is a Kenyan creation as well as the Peri Peri Chicken, which is a South African favourite that is popular in the country.
On Tuesdays, the wait time for a pizza courtesy of Terrific Tuesday at a local franchise can extend to two hours. Similarly, a competing franchise has a Friday pizza offer that sees its branches at their busiest every week.
The outlets are working overtime to outdo each other with offers aimed at boosting sales, from buy-one-get-one-free, free add-on items like soda and cakes, or even offering activities to lure and keep children entertained in the outlets.
“The younger generation watches TV and is on the Internet. They see the brands and want to have the same in Kenya. Globalisation has played a big role in bringing popularisation of these brands in Kenya,” says Eric Andre, director and founder of Om Nom Nom, the official Domino’s and Coldstone franchise holder.
In the report, Understanding Africa’s Middle Class, by Standard Bank economist Simon Freemantle released last year, Kenya’s population stood at an estimated 43.5 million of which, eight per cent made up the middle-class households. The 815,5000 households are expected to increase to 2.6 million in 2030.
Kenya GDP is now valued at Sh4.75 trillion ($53.2 billion) while its GDP per capita — (GDP divided by population) — stands at Sh116,037 ($1,246), just above the World Bank’s $1,045 threshold for lower middle-income countries.
The newest entrant to the pizza market Domino’s Pizza came in with fellow American franchise Coldstone. With four Coldstone branches and three Domino’s Pizza, Om Nom Nom is adding three more shops before the close of the year. They are not alone in the expansion. KFC has grown its branch network to eight in four years and is expected to close the year with 10 branches under its belt.
Sandwich chain Subway has five branches across the city with expected expansion next year. Teriyaki Japan opened its first branch in Nairobi as its investors look to capture a share of the market.
The growth has not been limited to foreign franchises as local names including Java, Big Square, Artcaffe, Dormans and Carnivore expand their outlets.
Java, which was bought off by American Venture fund ECP, has grown its network to over 30 branches countrywide in the last few years while Artcaffe has expanded its brand as well as rebranded and opened five Dormans branches.
“We looked at where else in Africa the concept would work and after Nigeria, Kenya was the natural option,” says Andre.
As the Kenyan consumer works more and spends a large chunk of the day in traffic, there is less time spent on cooking and other household chores. Fast food chains and investors are betting on the lifestyle change by Kenyans to expand into the region.
“The reality of Nairobi traffic means that you need to be close to your customers at their place of work or their home and we are strategically picking locations that serve our fans who value their time and are looking for fresh options,” says CJ Bak, director, Liberty Eagle, Subway franchise holder in Kenya.
With more disposable income, the nouveau riche of Kenya is spending more on eating out and the quicker they can have a meal, the better.
“When I initially approached the chains for the franchise to Africa, they were not sold on the idea. But once they saw the results, they said wow, what a continent,” says Andre.
According to the African Development Bank, in Kenya, more people can afford cars, with the number of registered vehicles doubling from 2001 to 2009. The youth now spend $616 million (Sh61 billion) annually on entertainment and outings.
Africa has been viewed as the best frontier to invest in and expand into as the Western market is saturated with products and alternatives.
Kenya’s first drive-thru has become KFC’s top earner in the country. “This drive-thru remains the best performing in East Africa,” said Kuku Foods East Africa managing director Derrick Van Houten, franchise holder for KFC.
The concept allows customers to order, pay and pick their meal while still in the comfort of their vehicles.
Sandwich shop Subway offers a healthy alternative of freshly made sandwiches targeting the more health conscious consumer. As part of their menu, customers have the alternative to pick their favourite sub as a salad, eliminating the extra carbs from the bread.
Though Andre admits that Domino’s Pizzas may not be for the health-conscious, Coldstone has alternatives to ice cream in the form of a sorbet, which is lactose-free, and yoghurt for a low-fat option.
Naked Pizza which has two branches in the city offers low carb and health variations to pizza favourites.
Variations including salads, ugali and fruits have become substitutes for chips in most fast food outlets to give the consumer a small degree of control on their meal selection.
Even with the increased expenditure by the middle class and the growth in investment by franchises in the country, there has been an adoption of a sedentary lifestyle.
Traditional foods are cooked with little artificial additives and the favourite delicacy of chips and chicken from Kenchic, and if you were lucky a Wimpy or Burger dome, no longer hold appeal for the growing population.
The fast food franchises have brought with them new menu offering deep fried chicken, more pastries, sugary treats and processed foods. This coupled with increased inactivity has seen a bulge in the average national waistline.
In a controversial film titled Super-Size Me inspired by two American citizens who went on to sue fast-food giant McDonalds, a film producer conducted a risky experiment where he took centre stage as the main subject.
He not only gained weight rapidly but also reported feeling depressed, tired, moody, lethargic and suffered insomnia. Tests also showed that his health was failing. As the film portrayed the short-term effects that fast foods have on the human body, the subject underwent radical changes in body weight and developed ailments that could only be attributed to his diet.
There have been long debates on whether fast foods cause obesity or not. Several studies have also been done by various scholars to press their arguments. Some of those studies show that fast food causes obesity while others show that they do not.