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Ready-to-eat food market’s growth spurred by our changing lifestyles

17 February 2009 5,206 views No Comment

Joan Mwangi had to try buying frozen chapatis from a supermarket out of frustration as a result of constantly coaching maids who would eventually leave.

“My husband loves chapatis but I don’t always have time to cook them because of the nature of my job; therefore, I train my maids to do it,” says a marketing professional and mother of three.

She goes on: “Initially, my husband would often complain that the chapatis the maids made were not as good as mine. Each time, I would take time to train them to the level where he was satisfied with their cooking but when they left it meant starting again from scratch.”

One day she bought a pack of frozen ready-to-eat Azam chapatis and prepared them for the family dinner. Her husband liked them so much that she no longer makes chapatis, but buys from the supermarket.

“It has made meal-time preparation so much easier. It takes only 10  minutes to heat them up and now I no longer have to plan in advance to make a meal of chapatis. It’s particularly convenient when we get visitors dropping by unannounced,” she says.

Contrary to conventional wisdom that convenience foods are mostly for people challenged in the kitchen such as bachelors or busy single people who find it a hassle to cook elaborate meals, ready-to-eat foods, popularly known in the market as RTE, have been eagerly embraced by married women even some who love to cook.

Business Daily caught up with Gita Pandit, a teacher, at Uchumi supermarket at Sarit Centre. She had just bought a one kilo of frozen githeri (maize and beans) retailing at Sh142.

Ms Pandit says when she buys cooked food, it saves cooking time as well as fuel, gas or electricity. “With githeri already in the fridge, I can make a spur of the moment decision to cook it otherwise I would have had to decide to make it the evening before then spend the whole day boiling it,” she says.

Ms Pandit cooks at home when she has many people and when making snacks like samosas. She is also a fan of ready-made chapatis, which retail at Sh60 for a pack of five. With a shelf-life of a year, she can store the chapatis without worrying that they will go bad.

Azam chapatis are produced in Tanzania and shipped to Kenyan supermarkets by rail in frozen containers. “I trust the quality and the fact that they are hygienically packaged,” says Ms Pandit.

Previously she used to buy tinned foods but switched to RTE frozen foods because they have no artificial ingredients or preservatives.

Retail industry players say these foods virtually unknown in the Kenyan market around seven years ago are today the fastest growing food category in supermarkets.

Meats, French fries, samosas, spring rolls, naan and ready-made pizzas were the first products in this category. But it has expanded rapidly to include traditional African dishes such as githeri, and njahi (lablab bean) and dishes like cold potato and vegetable salads, chicken biriani, pilau and fruit salads.

Uchumi Supermarkets has started making and selling chapatis in its Ngong Road outlet at the in-house bakery. It also sells fried sweet potatoes and arrowroot to complement the wide array of baked goodies.

Consumers will, however, have to pay a price for the convenience of the RTE foods. At Uchumi, a chapati goes for Sh30 compared to the Azam pack which retails at Sh60 for five chapatis. The sweet potatoes and arrowroot pieces go for Sh35 a piece.

But these compare favourably with tea time snacks sold in offices such as samosa, ndazi and doughnuts and are a healthier alternative because they have a lot of fibre. Wholemeal chapatis are also available in supermarkets with prices starting at Sh140 for a pack with five.

Globally, RTE foods have become big business with growth fastest in developing countries where takeoff came later than developed countries.

About 87 per cent of users globally say they are convenient, according to research by the US Department of Agriculture. Another 56 per cent of respondents said they did not have enough time to prepare a full meal.

Globally, in 2007, $1,586 billion was spent on convenience foods. The top three categories were bakery products, dairy products, and chilled foods according to research by Euromonitor.

Ten lifestyle issues drive the demand for convenience foods: an aging population, the changing of household structures, female participation in labour force and longer working hours.

Food poisoning

Others are consumer prosperity and technology ownership, a move toward healthier eating, a desire for new experiences, individualism, declining cooking skills, breakdown of traditional mealtimes, and value for the money.

Despite the popularity of RTE foods, consumers who are not well educated about how to handle frozen foods can easily get food poisoning. “If you take it out of the frozen food section of the supermarket you have to keep it in the freezer or cook all of it.

Many people defrost the pack, cook part of it then put the rest back in the freezer which can cause contamination leading to food poisoning,” says Alice Bacia an expert chef who runs Bushbuck Mara Camp together with her husband.

She says supermarket RTE meals are preferable to the hawked foods. “They cook the food in their homes under hygienic conditions but the problem is where they place it sometimes on the roadside  where it is exposed to dust and dirt,” she says.

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