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Jacaranda and Wings

By guest blogger and Brighter Green Executive Director, Mia MacDonald.

I read about it before I actually saw it: the first East African outpost of an American fast food chain, a KFC in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Media reports said that a throng of Kenyans had lined up to get in on opening day, filing past the yellow external facade and a huge plastic image of Colonel Sanders’ goateed face, red apron and Southern U.S. string tie. Many had eaten at KFC or other U.S. fast food outlets while traveling or living outside Kenya, like one of KFC’s first customers in Nairobi, Zahir Lalji. “We’re really happy it’s here,” he told the Associated Press. “We’re hoping McDonald’s will come in too.”

Not everyone in Nairobi felt that way. This first KFC (there’s now another one) is located in a popular shopping center, Nakumatt Junction, along with a Nakumatt supermarket, clothing and electronics stores, a health food shop, and a branch of Java House, a Kenyan chain coffee bar and cafe that, somewhat improbably, always stocks soy milk.

“I was amazed one day as we were driving into Junction. On the outside was a big KFC sign with the bucket,” a colleague wrote when I asked her about the KFC. “It looked really misplaced. It was bad enough to have the South African fried chicken bunch [Nando’s] in Kenya, but now this…you can only project our quality of life index! Sedentary and KFC!” KFC in Kenya also has South African roots: it’s the brainchild of a South African entrepreneur, who bought the franchise license and trained many of the Nairobi KFC managers in South Africa.

A few months after the opening, I too, got to gawk at the jarring sight of Nairobi’s first KFC, or at least the exterior, since I was at Nakumatt Junction early in the day, before KFC had opened. The only activity I saw was a KFC employee wiping down the large, street-facing windows. The promotion staff must also be busy: this KFC has its own Facebook page, with nearly 2,500 “likes.”

“KFC?” Jau, a Nairobi taxi driver I know, parried when I asked him what he thought about the fast food chain’s being in Nairobi as we drove past the second KFC (at least two more are set to open this year), also in an upscale mall. “It’s expensive, you know,” he added. Did he want to go? “Not really,” he replied. “I can get a better-tasting chicken for less money elsewhere.” Another taxi driver, less prosperous than Jau, was more intrigued. “If I get the money…” he told me.

What made KFC’s entry into the Kenyan market possible was securing a reliable supply chain. That is, finding a producer of chicken that could ensure consistency to KFC’s specifications, meet demand, and provide refrigeration and traceability from “farm to fork” as Kenchic, the largest poultry integrator in east and central Africa defines it. Kenchic, which runs hatcheries, “farms,” slaughterhouses, and processing plants, as well as its own quick serve restaurant chain in Kenya, “Kenchic Inn,” fit the bill. The company’s tag line is “We are ‘kuku’ about chicken.” Kuku is Swahili for chicken; in English, the spoken word conveys an almost loopy enthusiasm.

As in other countries where U.S. fast food corporations are expanding rapidly—there are 3,000 KFCs and counting in China; 70 already in India—factory farm operations are central to the supply chain.

Kenchic’s chickens are kept in facilities akin to U.S.-style “broiler sheds:” a set of large buildings set back from a major road in Mlonlongo, near Nairobi’s international airport (a Kenchic Inn operates nearby), which I saw from a distance last year.

What makes KFC in Kenya so jarring? I’ve been visiting the country for years and while there’s not a dearth of “home-grown” informal eateries featuring Western-style burger and chicken meals, fast food culture is not widespread, and Nairobi—thankfully—doesn’t have the Western chains that often dominate cities in Asia and Latin America. But it does have a growing middle class for whom Western brands have a certain glamour—and those brands want to reach new markets.

In Nairobi, KFC is still a novelty. In South Africa, though, where it’s operated for 40 years, it is, according to the KFC website, a national “institution.”  Five hundred KFCs populate southern Africa, a majority in South Africa, where I can attest that they are hard to avoid. I saw more KFCs than I see even in the U.S. when I attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 17th “conference of parties” (or COP 17) meeting in Durban late last year.

Colonel Sanders’ elderly white male visage as a backdrop of sorts for a climate change summit—in South Africa, no less—was surreal. So was watching some of my Kenyan colleagues also attending COP 17 (none of whom had eaten at Nairobi’s new KFCs), getting a late night meal at an obligingly open Durban McDonald’s, one of many. No McDonald’s yet operates in Nairobi, but that may change soon—a story, I think, for another day.

Mia MacDonald is the executive director of public policy action tank Brighter Green which is documenting the intersections between climate change and globalization of intensive animal agriculture. 

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