Lessons from Kune Foods for budding entrepreneurs and politicians

Kune recently closed shop less than a year into operations. [iStockphoto]

Kenya is regarded as one of Africa’s most fecund grounds for business start-ups.

Certainly so, when one considers that over 20 new businesses have been registered over the past two years attracting impressive amounts of foreign capital. But it has not been all rosy with some like food company Kune going belly up.

Kune Food’s flash in the pan existence is an instruction on how not to conduct business in Kenya. Started by Frenchman Robin Reecht, its mission was to produce “quality take-away meals at an affordable price and distribute them to individuals, retails and corporates”.

But after raising one million dollars, Kune recently closed shop less than a year into operations.

The first lesson from Kune is that an enterprise cannot be built and sustained on falsehoods. Reecht allegedly started the food company in Nairobi after finding out that it was “impossible to get great food at a cheap price”.

How untrue! Kenya does in fact have a vibrant food culture with a wide range of servings that cut through a cross-section of social and pocket status. Kenyans may initially buy into the hype. But once they discover that a product does not live up to its billing, they quickly move on.

Second, one cannot fix a problem that doesn’t exist. Kune purported to bring home-cooked meals to city dwellers in offices and homes. They didn’t reckon with the fact that many of them were already being served by the ubiquitous kiosks around business premises and construction sites.

These kiosks and open air kitchens prepare hot meals on demand with flavours akin to those of grandmothers’ cooking. This alone makes such food irresistible to those who have a nostalgic longing for rural cuisine.

Further, most Kenyans do not pay for meals upfront. They prefer, instead, a credit system where bills for meals accumulated over the month are settled on payday. Kune did not offer such an arrangement.

Third, Kune assumed that attractive packaging and an efficient distribution system were the only requirements for instant success. They failed to focus on the sophistication of the Kenyan palate accustomed to flavourful food.

Chef Stephania of Red Ribbon Chefs offers some blunt analysis of Kune’s approach to the Kenyan market describing the food as “bland, unimaginative and in such small quantities as to be totally unable to assuage the hunger of the quintessential lunch time crowd”.

Last, Kune failed to take into consideration what has been described as “the peculiar habits of Kenyans”. The food company focused on the developed world concept of quick, individualistic meals. This is unlike Africa where any meal is a communal affair; a celebration of sorts. People look at meal times as an opportunity to get together whether at home or in the office.

Author Chinua Achebe captures it aptly in his book Things fall apart saying, “a man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.”

The Kune debacle offers valuable lessons to the political elite. Foremost is that pie-in-the-sky promises are unsustainable. Given the level of the country’s indebtedness, it may not be possible to put the poorest two million Kenyans on the dole as some politicians have promised. Nor will it be possible to fund youth and women empowerment programmes to the tune of billions.

To the preponderance of Kenyans, big ticket infrastructure projects can only solve problems that don’t exist for them. A World Bank report says seven out of 10 Kenyans walk or take a matatu to work. In their lifetime, they may never use the new Nairobi Expressway or the Standard Gauge Railway.

Kune borrowed one million dollars and failed miserably in its endeavours. Kenya’s Parliament recently raised the public debt ceiling to Sh10 trillion. Will this resolve any problem or will it, like Kune, set the country up for failure?

-Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst