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Uji Power: The undying power of Kenyan frugal innovations

Financial Standard
 Uji served in a calabash. [iStockphoto]

Many years back, there used to be a drink called chibuku.

It had an interesting tag, chakula kinywaji, which loosely translated means a wholesome drink that is as good as a meal. Was it a clever way to market a new product? It was the first hybrid drink, long before hybrid cars hit the road. Hybrid maize may have been around. 

I was underage, those much older than me can share the experience of taking chibuku. How did it taste? What was the colour?

Why was it both a food and a drink? Where did it go? Did anyone own a copyright to the name? 

Now enter Uji Power. I have seen sign boards advertising the drink, which is a healthy porridge made from natural ingredients, mostly in urban areas. You can get its recipe online, mixing as many ingredients as possible from cassava to peanuts.  

Why doesn’t it contain omena (silver cyprinid)? Is power the lots of carbohydrates in it? 

Uji Power is a frugal innovation, driven by local needs like chibuku before it. We want a drink that will cheaply satisfy us and possibly excite us. Prof Jackson Maalu, an entrepreneurship and strategy guru recently told me he took Uji Power.

In a hearty phone conversation, he added that he could now “beat” me in a game of golf on any course in the Commonwealth. He is rarely that threatening.  

Asked about the taste, and “power” in the uji, he was cagey about it. I have not tried Uji Power but will try it subject to response from my readers and nutritionists. 

One lady confessed to me to having taken Uji Power. “It’s addictive,” she added.  Another man said it’s not good for women.

He was cagey in explaining why. Why is there so much mystery around a seemingly innocent drink except “power.” Have we not taken porridge since time immemorial?

It was most babies’ first food. It was the unpopular breakfast in most high schools before modernity set in with tea and other niceties. 

Another fascinating food before Uji Power was KDF, a cousin of mandazi. Its toughness gave it the name KDF.  Recce or SP for Special Forces should have been a better name. The creativity on the Kenyan streets is just fascinating. Back to Uji Power. Kenyan innovation is legendary. It is not just about M-Pesa and placing photocopiers in butcheries.

Notably, making and selling porridge “without power” was common, particularly around Kiambu. The county has strange liaisons with porridge, particularly in ceremonies. It also makes fascinating mukimo bred with ripe bananas. 

Uji Power has something to do with economic cycles. We did not take economic distress as prices and taxes went up lying down.

We turned to frugal innovation. The focus was branding and using locally available materials. There is nothing imported to prepare Uji Power.  That’s the essence of a frugal innovation, use locally available material, nothing complicated.

We all know about uji, common across most Kenyan communities. It is one food or drink that cuts across Kenya, it’s more Kenyan than ugali. Going by its current price, porridge is still popular. Never mind its connection with poverty.  

Economic distress often spawns innovations, so we turn to our ingenuity. History supports that observation. That is why wars and their extreme distress have probably given more innovations than peace interludes. Innovation in distress cuts across socioeconomic classes, and they all suffer. In business school, the emphasis has been on “big innovations” mostly in technology. It’s time we get down to earth. 

One problem in innovation is making the vast majority accept it. For frugal innovations, it’s worse because it’s “so ordinary,” yet, we love novelty.  How do you sell something that connotes poverty like porridge? How do we sell something we can make at home? From a psychological perspective, we buy many things because of what they promise us - class, prestige, and identity. We have unfulfilled desires, some from childhood. Check adverts carefully and what they promise.

For uji, just add the word power.  Who hates being powerful? Don’t we even fight for power?  Before you analyse, have you taken Uji Power? Like Kenya Kwanza, target the masses, or “the hustlers” to sound more Kenyan.  

There are millions of them looking for a quick solution to their basic problems, from hunger to poverty.

They are a good market for frugal innovation, a lot of sophistication may put them off. Do you remember the many MPs, governors or other leaders who lost elections because of “kizungu mingi,” a euphemism for sophistication?

Why do many unsophisticated politicians win the polls? They are frugal, dance around and talk in their mother tongue.  From a marketing and economic point of view, Uji Power is a great innovation. Who holds the copyright to the name?

How does this “power” help you?  Does it make you stay longer without eating? Walk faster, beat inflation? Are the rumours about that power true? Let’s take the innovation further and start packaging Uji Power like soda or juice. Did we not start packaging another Kenyan innovation, dawa?

I would love to see Uji Power being advertised during English Premier League matches. Have you taken Uji Power? Tell us about the power in it and how you made use of it.

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