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Forget KFC, this is the real hot potato that deserves attention

By Leonard Khafafa | Jan 11th 2022 | 3 min read

KFC fast food eatery joint in Lavington, Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

The vast preponderance of Kenyans who feel slighted by international food chain KFC’s decision to buy potatoes from Egypt is amusing. More so when one considers that Kenya is becoming increasingly reliant on imports for its food needs.

To the uninitiated, the simmering war of words is a no-brainer. "Kick them out,” they cry in newly acquired patriotic fervour. The more temperate ones call for a government policy change to force KFC to buy its potatoes from farmers in Nyandarua County.

A statement from KFC reads, “we have been on a journey to identify a local supplier that has the processing, tracking and cold chain management capability to supply KFC chips.” At first blush, the statement seems placatory, stopping a non-issue dead in its tracks before it becomes a hot button problem. But to the discerning, it is revelatory. It peels back the layers of complexity and shows them to be unresolvable by a simple change of policy or effete boycotts as some have suggested.

First off, it reveals that even after over 10 years of operations in Kenya, KFC is yet to contract a local supplier who meets their standards. Clearly, not every variety of spud, least of all from Nyandarua, makes the cut. An industry insider opines that the potato types needed by international franchises have characteristics that guarantee uniformity across the globe. They look, feel and taste the same so that there is no distinction between fries bought in Nairobi and those bought from the same franchise in New York.

To ensure uniformity, the chips are cut long. This means the potato variety must be more long than wide to ensure minimum wastage. Then the quality must have precise oil absorption capabilities, neither too much nor too little to prevent the fries from becoming soggy or turning into crisps. There are potato seed suppliers who have cultivated the perfect seed. But they require expensive royalty fees that may be out of reach for the local smallholder farmer.

Second, processing of the potatoes to the required standards needs a financial investment that may be out of reach for many farmers. Machine-cutting, blanching and blast freezing the potatoes before they are packaged, preserves size, shape and taste. However, the requisite equipment to achieve this has to be imported at great cost. In addition, a grower to international standards is required to have a traceability system that addresses product process and conditions, waste treatment, equipment employed, precise process flow, among other things. This is capital intensive.

Kenyans are not incapable of meeting KFC standards. After all, the country has exported flowers, fruits and vegetables of the highest quality to markets in the global North. As much as these have contributed greatly to the GDP of the country, they remain the preserve of wealthy farmers who have the wherewithal to finance production.

Yet the key to food security and alleviation of hunger according to the Malabo Declaration, lies with smallholder farmers. Dr Eyasu Abreha, Ethiopian State Minister for Agriculture and Livestock has “urged the continent (Africa) as a whole to increase investments to the agricultural sector that allow smallholder farmers to access technology to boost productivity levels.”

In other words, smallholder farmers in Nyandarua must be assisted to produce, process and supply potatoes to the standard required by KFC and others. Left to their own devices, they will continue using 1960s technology, cultivating spuds of an indeterminate variety and quality. And the government can do this by simply adhering to the Malabo Declaration Commitments that, among other things, allocates 10 per cent of public annual expenditure to agriculture.

Kenya faces an existential crisis. This year, the country’s maize yields have declined from 44 million to 33 million bags. The country has a deficit of its national staple that may be resolved by imports from neighbours. This is the real hot potato issue and reflects the dismal investment made in agriculture. Boycotting KFC is the least of our national problems.

Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst

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