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Why African restaurants fail

Sunday September 7 2014

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Have you ever asked yourself why there are more recognisable Italian restaurants than African restaurants in Nairobi? There are also more renowned Chinese than African restaurants, not just in Nairobi but in all major cities of Africa. 

In Kenya as well as other African countries, the best reputed restaurants with African dishes are Ethiopian. Even more strange is the fact that all major hotels in Africa serve foreign dishes. 

For African restaurants to succeed, the entire supply chain must be standardized to get a consistent taste that can lead to a marketable product.

To put all these into perspective let us revisit Ivan Pavlov’s work from several years ago. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was a Russian psychologist known primarily for his work in classical conditioning. His studies on dog behaviour to what he called conditional stimulus (CS) or responding to conditioning was a major breakthrough in psychology

Wikimedia explains this Pavlovian conditioning as a kind of learning that occurs when a CS is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (US). The CS is a neutral stimulus (e.g., the sound of a tuning fork), the US is biologically potent (e.g., the taste of food) and the unconditioned response (UR) to the US is an unlearned reflex response (e.g., salivation).

After pairing is repeated (some learning may occur already after only one pairing), the organism exhibits a conditioned response (CR) to the CS when the CS is presented alone. The CR is usually similar to the UR, but unlike the UR, it must be acquired through experience and is relatively impermanent.

A classic experiment by Ivan Pavlov exemplifies the standard procedure used in classical conditioning. First Pavlov observed the UR (salivation) produced when meat powder (US) was placed in the dog's mouth. He then rang a bell (CS) before giving the meat powder.


After some repetitions of this pairing of bell and meat the dog salivated to the bell alone, demonstrating what Pavlov called a "conditional" response, now commonly termed "conditioned response" or CR.

I’m sorry about the psychology lesson but it is necessary for you to understand why we fail in the restaurant businesses. I reconstructed Pavlov’s experiment with African dogs with mixed outcomes, which I will report here. 

Every time I picked its serving dish and put ugali (maize meal) in it, I noticed that the dog was unexcited and even more important, the noise from picking its dish did not impact the dog’s reaction. But when the serving was roast meat, the dog would drool at the sound of the serving dish. 

This was followed by positive excitement, which the dog exhibited by wagging its tail vigorously. I concluded that over time the dogs learn and build their own predictor models associating smell with their desires. 


Dogs may not be different from us after all, and their reactions are indeed analogous to our own lives. And when we go to a restaurant, we sort of develop certain UR (salivation) to US (restaurant ambiance). Next time you are in a restaurant or nyama choma place, observe the reactions of the person you are with when perusing the menu.

It is because of how we respond to certain tastes that the recipe is developed, in order to reproduce the same dish every time to certify the customer’s UR whenever they are within the restaurant environment, or US. 

Unfortunately, there is no African equivalent of recipe (African languages are static and our going to school never really helped to enrich them), and as such we have never developed an optimal taste of any of our dishes. Everything that we cook is purely random. If, for example, you had ugali and boiled chicken in Nairobi, there is very little chance that the same dish in Kiambu, barely 40 kilometres away, will taste the same. 

There must be standards, ranging from what the chicken is fed and at what stage you slaughter it to how long it is boiled and the amount of salt, water and other condiments added. This simple but scientific method of cooking is what drags Africa behind in commercialising their local culinary offerings. We never think that there is value in local content even when it has latent potential.


This perhaps explains why you see people fighting with a piece of chicken when their mind expected it to be soft, only to find it is a rubbery five-year-old chicken prepared for the dish. 

America restaurant chains like McDonalds, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) have very strict standards that must be adhered to all franchisees. 

Indeed they source their supplies from countries that have adopted International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and quality management standards for agricultural fall within the ISO 9000. 

The ISO 9000 are basically family addresses of various aspects of quality management and contains some of ISO’s best known standards. The standards provide guidance and tools for companies and organisations who want to ensure that their products and services consistently meet customer’s requirements, and that quality is consistently improved. 

Africa’s future success in agriculture, culinary as well as other industries solely lies in how we adopt these international standards.

Every time Kenyans get to know that the potatoes for KFC are imported, they often complain that we have enough potatoes locally. If you dig deeper, you find that very few farmers know the variety they planted or even record when the potatoes were planted, what soil type they have, their levels of soil alkalinity or acidity, etc. 


Harvesting is done when the time allows, yet farmers have no idea that knowledge of all these variables impacts not just the quality but also productivity. 

Poultry production in Kenya is perhaps the only industry that has partly advanced with all these strict requirements. They have managed to standardise procedures from the feed to the exact number of weeks they grow the chicks, to the expected weight.  

It is very easy to develop a chicken dish recipe from such precision production if you do not spoil it with Kienyeji (free-range chicken).

I have a feeling that if Africa developed her culinary content, we could succeed because the invasion of western diets is causing chaos in several countries. Most of the top ten fattest countries are not in the Western world. But I must add that although it is often assumed that it is the Western diets that cause lifestyle diseases, such thinking does not always support the fact that our rural folks are developing these lifestyle diseases. 


The culprit is largely our randomised cooking and the culture of using salt before establishing that you need it, which is devastating to our health. Diet is increasingly becoming one of the major problems in our health-care system. 

A research paper, "Hypertension in Sub-Saharan Africa: Cross-Sectional Surveys in Four Rural and Urban Communities”, shows the increasing prevalence of hypertension in Africa. 

Hypertension was the most prevalent risk factor for Cardiovascular Diseases (CVD) in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Namibia. The crude prevalence of hypertension ranged from 19.0 per cent in Tanzania to 32.0 per cent in Namibia.

The age-adjusted prevalence was 19.3 per cent in Nigeria, 21.4 per cent in Kenya, 23.7 per cent in Tanzania and 38.0 per cent in Namibia. The prevalence of hypertension increased with age. 


With all these problems, African dishes have a niche to exploit. With proper recipes and management styles, we can grow a global African dishes chain if we dare to dream.  The success of Java, Kosewe and Njuguna’s has been mainly due to a fairly standardised service, menu and low staff turnover that provide a consistent product. 

These practices are not common with new establishments that fail within a short period of time. By now the two well-known African eateries, that is, Kosewe and Njuguna’s, should be franchised to all big cities in the country as well as Africa. 

Java’s success in managing multiple stores should lead the way to other parts of Africa and the world.  Since we are a replicative society, it is this discipline we need to start growing African restaurants across the continent and the world.

Marcus Garvey said “God and Nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius we make ourselves what we want to be. Follow always that great law. Let the sky and God be our limit and Eternity our measurement.”

 Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi's Business School, Lower Kabete campus. He is a former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter:@bantigito