Kenyans must adapt to changing lifestyles

As I recently stood inside a Naivas Supermarket branch waiting for my wife to pay for items that she had picked, I noticed a steady stream of young people coming in to buy take-away food from the deli.

As one young woman passed by, I jokingly quipped, ‘‘dinner?’’ ‘‘Yes,’’ she replied, adding that here was no need to cook if she could pick ready-to-eat meals.

This new trend will have far reaching implications for our agricultural and industrial sectors. Traditionally, it is rare in African cultures to buy food portions for just one person even when no other person is expected.

In fact, in some communities, more food is cooked than needed just in case a guest abruptly appears when you are just about to start eating. This is regarded as a blessing. It is said that the guest thinks well of you.

Many a times, the food that remains goes to waste and research has shown that at least 10 per cent of our food goes to waste due to lack of refrigeration. This wasteful and random generosity is now under threat from this emerging lifestyle.


When I went to Mathare for one of my research activities, I noted another similar phenomenon where women make chapatis by the roadside and sell them in the evening to day labourers living in the sprawling slums.

John Ingasi, a mason, told me that they too find it inconvenient to start cooking after a day’s long labour, leave alone the cost of energy.

One chapati (larger than the normal diameter of six to eight inch) is sufficient for dinner and the following day’s breakfast.

The expansion of local start up Java House and the entry of international fast foods giants like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, Dominos, Cold Stone Creamery, Galitos and Pizza Hut, signal the changing lifestyle in Kenya.

But the fact that we never quite meet the standards of their inputs, our only economic input is labour as they import most of their supplies.

In economics, consumption is good but it is even better when the goods are local. This situation must change if our agricultural output is to be impacted by the growing appetite for the consumption of fast food.

We cannot be net importers of agriculture products when more than 70 per cent of people are into agriculture.

There is wisdom in seeking to negotiate with these new market entrants to teach our farmers about production methods that would yield the standards they want.

We must also negotiate with these fast food chains so that they can establish factories for value addition that turn agriculture produce to the kinds of near-finished produce that they use in the restaurants.

We must also take the science of food seriously because those who understand it exploit the premium that comes with it.

We are at a crossroads. In fact, our cultural artifacts, meaning, and relations that are in our foods could be lost completely as we embrace the new convenient lifestyles.

Most African dishes are not amenable to the strict standards and methods used in executing fast food operations.

Our failure to inculcate a culture of using recipes means that we cannot guarantee any form of standard that can rival multinational restaurants.

In an earlier blog post, I made the case for mechanising local food production such as ugali in order to develop standard recipes.

Without standardisation, scalability of any enterprise becomes impossible. These are some of the secrets of success of these multinationals expanding into different countries.

We must have the ambition to market ugali and irio products to Russians one day through an expanding local start up.

That means leveraging on the changing lifestyle to come up with new products that can be branded and marketed globally.

No one thought that Java House could become international when it started. Although it changed hands to international investors, it serves as an inspiration to start a Tea House, then Muringa Cuisines, and hopefully Nyama Choma and Ugali Haven restaurants.

There must be a deliberate effort to develop simplified products out of our traditional foods and include them as part of the alternatives to the convenient international culinary.

Louise Fresco, a Dutch Scientist in a powerful Ted Talk on food said, ‘Food, in the end, in our own tradition, is something holy.

It’s not about nutrients and calories. It’s about sharing. It’s about honesty. It’s about identity.’ Let’s protect our identity by becoming more creative about our foods.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.