CEO’s uphill task selling Weetabix as Kenyan adults’ breakfast option

Weetabix East Africa CEO Dominic Kimani during the interview on February 14, 2024 at the head office in Nairobi. 

Photo credit: Photo | Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

Weetabix has been struggling to shed the tag of it being a children breakfast cereal in the local market.

Weetabix, the all-nutritious cereal biscuits, may be a popular whole family breakfast option across most global markets where they are sold, but in Kenya consumers have consigned it to children.

Consequently, the American company that owns the brand has been punching below its weight as it struggles to shed the tag of it being a children breakfast cereal in the local market.

Dominic Kimani, Weetabix East Africa Chief Executive Officer attributes the slow penetration to the “peculiarity” of Kenyans.

“Is it Micheal Joseph [the first CEO of Safaricom, a telco] who talked of Kenya’s peculiar habits?” Wonders Mr Kimani when the BD Life asks why Weetabix is a children-only breakfast cereal.

“It is only in this region. You go to Europe, you go everywhere else, Weetabix is for everyone,” adds Mr Kimani, who seeks to change the narrative that his predecessors were unable to.

And he is convinced that he is not biting more than he can chew. Save for a one-year stint at a cosmetic firm, he has spent his last 30 years in food companies.

“Food products are very dear and close to me,” says Mr Kimani.

National consumption

In other markets, Weetabix's nutritional value has helped the firm grow its sales across the demographics, but the Kenyan adult consumer, statistics show, is yet to be fully sold on the idea of breakfast cereals.

As such, Kenya lags behind other regions in consumption of breakfast cereals.

Nielsen, a data analytics company, values the breakfast cereals market in Kenya at around Sh3 billion, translating to about 3.5 million kilogrammes per annum. This, in turn translates to only 70 grammes per person per annum.

“That is equivalent to our two biscuits,” Mr Kimani offers for context.

In contrast, in the United Kingdom, where Weetabix also has a plant, it is 8,000 grammes person per annum. South Africa, the third country that makes Weetabix, the consumption per annum person is 2,000 grammes.

“And UAE (United Arab Emirates), which is worse than us when it comes to breakfast cereals because their culture requires different formats of breakfast options, they are at 1,000 grammes per person per annum,” adds Mr Kimani.

14-fold growth projection

By getting the marketing right, he projects that the company can grow this category almost 14-fold from Sh3 billion to almost Sh50 billion.

But why has the company that has been operating in Kenya since the 1970s had a hard time getting adults to consume its products?

When Weetabix was introduced, it found an economy that not only had a tiny consumer class with a lot of people struggling with a low purchasing power, but the society had already gotten cozy with its own breakfast options.

Breakfast consisted mostly of chai, mandazi, chapati and bread for those in urban areas while gruel, arrow roots and sweet potatoes were common in rural areas.

Finding it difficult to penetrate the market, Mr Kimani’s predecessors decided to position Weetabix as ideal for children.

“The reason being, when you are in markets where disposable incomes are low and where the upper social economic class is very low, you don’t have the capacity to do mass production. Because it is very small,” explains Mr Kimani.

“However, if you have a product that is nutritious and adds value, you will find the masses. Even though they may not have money, they will be willing to pay an extra coin to buy that nutritious product for their children. They will deny themselves but buy for their children,” he adds.

Outgrowing the brand

The children eat and they love it, but Mr Kimani says when they get to eight, 10 years, they are tired of eating the same thing.

“They want to mature. So they will go to cornflakes, oats, muesly,” says Mr Kimani adding that it is not until later, when they are older and suffering from lifestyle diseases, that people return to cereals for breakfast.

Like many consumer products that were expensive for the Kenyan masses, to push sales, Weetabix had to jump into the kadogo economy by packaging its flagship product in quantities as small as a packet of two biscuits, enabling poor families to afford them.

Mr Kimani reckons that awareness and relevance is a major factor when it comes to consumers making a decision on whether or not to buy a product, but in their case price has had over-arching role.

Other peculiarity

Indeed, the other “peculiarity” among Kenyan consumers is that even though they are poor, you dare not give them a “cheap and nasty product” which is different from that which is being consumed by the rich.

“Kenyans are that proud. They are very conscious of the value they are getting. And that is why we come with different packs for the different pocket size,” says Mr Kimani.

Going forward, the uphill task is for the company to change the perception, especially among those with disposable income, that Weetabix is only suitable for children.

“It will take time but it will happen,” says Mr Kimani, noting that the campaign had started bearing some fruits before the Covid-19 pandemic struck in early 2020. Just before the pandemic, the usage of Weetabix biscuits among the under 10 dropped to 50 percent from 70 percent.

“But with Covid, and disposable incomes going down, they (adults) went back to their default positions: I will keep away from it and the little money I have, let me give my children the best,” says Kimani.

Indeed, with urbanisation and the expansion of the middle class, consumption of wheat products such as Weetabix has been on the rise.

Winds of change

As the rate of urbanisation goes up—as more people leave the rural areas and come into towns—a number of things happen.

One, Mr Kimani points out, they live a more hectic lifestyle, which leads consumers to look for convenience.

In a fast-paced urban environment, there is just no time to sit down and prepare ugali, so why not just grab a hamburger in the nearest fast-food shop?

Second, they have more disposable income and third, they have exposure to more varieties.

“So, with that kind of trend, we are now seeing an increasing demand for convenient, healthy nutritious and great tasting breakfast solutions,” he says, adding, “In the last six or seven years, we have seen category double in terms of what you call penetration or usage at home,”

More competition

“About five or six years ago, out of every 10 homes, only two and half homes were using cereal of any kind, that has now doubled to about 4.6 homes. So, in almost 50 percent of the homes now, you will find a breakfast cereal alternative.”

Mr Kimani says in the last decade a lot of players have entered this market, which he believes has not been fully exploited.

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