A cream-colored scoop of ugali (oo-gali) maize porridge sits in my plate— a round, stiff ball— its circumference saturated by a colorful mélange of greens and tomatoes, and a perfect pink snapper, staring at me with one intact eye.
I feel a twinge of nostalgia creep up on me in this eastern Kenyan town, more than 10,000 kilometers from home. Aidite Zirconia
Ugali reminds me of cou cou, the national dish of Barbados— my native country— and my Romanian father’s mamaliga that he’d boil into a lumpy mixture with milk.
Ugali, fish (samaki) and greens in Kenya
But although ugali shares some basic ingredients with other versions of maize porridge enjoyed around the world, its elevated meaning to the Kenyan people makes it truly distinct. Ugali is not a side dish like mashed potatoes or rice— it is a cultural phenomenon— and it’s so much more than just food.
Soga ugali Eh |Foundation put of fish |It is the middle of JanuaryEat and piss off the committee…
Cook ugali | And foundation of fish | It’s middle of January | Eat to annoy your fellows…
— Mbwe Mbwe by Bien and Aaron Rimbui (2021)
The catchy tunes of Bien and Aaron Rimbui’s Mbwe Mbwe (2021) pulsate against the walls of the eatery at my hotel, reminding Kenyans to enjoy the spoils of their hard work, while I settle into my dinner with a team from the Kenya office of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), a Swiss Foundation working to help populations overcome suffering caused by malnutrition.
In Nairobi, GAIN is supporting the government to improve the diets and nutritional status of its citizens, which includes 1.82 million Kenyan children under the age of 5 (26% of that age group) who are suffering from chronic malnutrition.
I’m exploring how ugali fits into the whole malnutrition equation, and the GAIN team has kindly agreed to teach me everything I need to know about how maize and ugali fit into the colorful tapestry of Kenyan life.
But I must first learn how to eat without a fork and knife while not looking like a toddler in the process.
I observe my Kenyan hosts as they pinch off portions of the dry porridge, manipulating them with their hands, skillfully turning them into edible scoops, which they use to pick up juicy pieces of fish that have been deboned with non-ugali-holding fingers.
Daphne Ewing-Chow, attempting to eat Ugali like a local
Clement Musyoka, a project manager, demonstrates how to eat the thick staple while another member of the team videos the moment for posterity. I feel self-conscious, considering the restraint that must be going into not laughing at my clumsy attempt at doing something that, for them, is as natural, well— as eating.
Originally introduced to Kenyan diets by the Portuguese, ugali has played a fundamental role in the country’s culinary identity for centuries and its Malawian cousin, Nsima, is one of the only foods to be added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
It is a spoon, a fork, a sensory tool to ensure that one doesn’t swallow fish bones, it can tone down strong or spicy flavors and is a lifesaver during wakati wa njaa, or periods of hunger between planting and harvest.
Musyoka explains to me that, given the role that ugali plays in Kenya, GAIN was eager to work with small businesses in this sub-sector — particularly during the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has been a food crisis as well as a health crisis,” he says. “This is why we launched the Keeping Food Markets Working (KFMW) program. If one sub-sector has such a large role to play in food security, then we need to support that sector as best we can.”
Small-scale maize processors, or posho mills, that dot the streets of Kenya’s urban and rural areas are a testament to the grain’s role in local food culture, fueling a grassroots market valued at $840 million.
Small-scale maize processors, or posho mills, dot the streets of Kenya’s urban and rural areas
The market for ready-packaged maize flour, produced by large-scale millers that are sold in shops and supermarkets, has been valued at $444 million.
Maize contributes 3% and 12% to Kenya’s gross domestic product (GDP) and agricultural GDP respectively, and accounts for 36% of caloric food intake.
More than one fifth of all maize consumed in the world is consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa.
But there is one major downside to the dominance of maize in local diets.
While rich in phosphorus, magnesium, and other trace elements, unfortified maize is void of Vitamin A and C, and is low in tryptophan, lysine, riboflavin and niacin, and of all the local staple crops, it is among the lowest in calcium, zinc and iron.
As in many developing countries, in Kenya, where the majority of dietary energy comes from grains like maize, over-consumption coupled with a lack of dietary diversity, has been linked to obesity, malnutrition, low immunity, non-communicable diseases and stunting among children.
The over-consumption of staples such as maize, while helping to reduce hunger and food insecurity, is a contributing cause of malnutrition.
In Kenya, the majority of dietary energy comes from grains like maize
The Kenyan government has responded to the growing epidemic of hidden hunger by advocating for the use of alternative grains such as millet, sorghum, and arrow roots— indigenous crops that are more affordable and healthier but have been underutilized— orphan crops that have seemingly been forgotten with time.
Starch from the sorghum grain, for example, is gluten-free and is rich in iron, zinc, phosphorus, calcium, copper, potassium, selenium, vitamin B1 (thiamin), vitamin B6, manganese, sodium, and magnesium. Half a cup of sorghum provides more than 25% of the recommended daily fiber intake and the crop is also well adapted to drought and a variety of weather conditions with minimal inputs and is higher yielding than maize and thus more profitable.
Jesse Murimi, a director responsible for human resources and legal issues in his parent’s agribusiness, Jufra, was once among the quarter of Kenyan children suffering from malnutrition.
His mother, Freshia Wangeci, CEO of Jufra, a processor and retailer of nutritious uji-mix (millet porridge), finger millet, amaranth, blended maize flours and wet-milled uji to low-income households, says that her company’s business model was inspired by her son’s early challenges.
“We had a big problem with feeding Jesse,” she recalls. “He could not swallow food as other children could— but somehow, he would swallow porridge.”
“We had no choice but to make a very nutritious porridge so that even if he ate two spoons full, at least he would get some form of nutrition. That’s the way our story began— me as a mother, trying to meet the needs of my young child.”
As an agronomist, Wangeci worked with a nutritionist in the government’s agriculture department who told her what to do— and it worked. Soon she was helping other mothers who had similar issues.
“Jesse is now a grown and healthy man, but our story has not changed.” She shakes her head.
“The needs of mothers in this country have not changed… This is where my life is.”
Both agriculture specialists, Wangeci and her husband Julius Mwebia grew their business with the knowledge that sorghum would be an ideal crop for the fortification of ugali.
Given sorghum’s nutritional superiority, blending it with maize helps to fortify ugali, and given its higher yields, it also helps to cut costs.
“Whenever someone buys from us, they are also supporting 40 farmers’ groups from which we source our grains,” says Mwebia of the more than 400 farmers in Arid and Semi-arid Land (ASAL) areas whose lives and livelihoods he says have been positively impacted by the 50 tons of grains that they sell to Jufra for its ugali mix.
And the value to local maize farmers is unquestionable.
Profits from widespread maize consumption have not equally trickled down to Kenya’s 4 million smallholder crop farmers, particularly in the ASALs. In places like Meru, many farmers have frequently opted to grow and consume their own crop for this reason.
Freshia Wangeci, Julius Mwebia and Jesse Murimi of Jufra
The ugali economy has created both winners and losers, and these inequalities became even more entrenched during the pandemic. Maize cartels and price manipulation have hit both farmers and consumers hard. Growers and producers have been severely impacted by regional droughts. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, national maize production for the 2021 long and short rains was around 88% and 47% of the five-year average, respectively.
With a monthly demand of 4.25 million bags, and an annual demand of 51 million bags, maize production for 2021 was only enough to meet about nine and a half months’ worth of demand.
Kenya’s United Grain Millers Association responded by declaring a maize shortage which they attributed to climate issues, and an increase in the prices of inputs such as fertilizer.
Sources say that the country will have imported up to 540,000 tons of maize in 2022, the highest since 2017— and this is expected to increase in 2023.
In the face of maize shortages, government sought to mitigate price increases by waiving import duties for white maize originating from outside of the East African Community, but traders have said that finding maize continues to be difficult throughout the region.
With respect to 2023, Agriculture Cabinet Secretary, Mithika Linturi, has told parliament that it will import 10 million bags of maize between February and April to ease surging costs.
Beginning in January 2023, Kenya is expected to begin importation of 11 tonnes of genetically modified maize seeds from South Africa— ending a ten year ban on GMOs— in response to food insecurity issues caused by perennial drought.
There has been no better time for orphan crops such as sorghum.
Jufra’s early lessons with blending put Wangeci and Mwebia in the perfect position to play an influential role in the production of the Kenyan government’s draft guidelines and standards for a 5-year flour blending initiative that will govern processes surrounding the blending of maize and wheat flour with sorghum, finger millet, pearl millet, cassava, sweet potato and amaranth.
The initiative promises to positively impact the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers in Kenya, reduce the price of ugali and improve nutrition within the population.
The flour blending programme is also expected to create employment for 3,820,704 Kenyans through Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and produce approximately 14.8 million bags of 10% to 30% maize flour blends, which will increase dietary diversity and improve micro-nutrient intake within the population.
In addition to providing a more nutritious product than what is currently on the market, Jufra’s social enterprise is producing food that is chemical-free and sustainably sourced with no additives, sweeteners, or preservatives.
“Our product is premium,” says Wangeci. “We have been working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture agri-nutrition unit which has been helping us to do our ratios and to understand what is in our grains.”
In 2015, in collaboration with the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI), Jufra introduced a wet-milling machine to the market which reduced the time required for traditional porridge processing, and they have helped to facilitate the installation of around 50 such machines in the community, with the objective of helping to support women and particularly working mothers with limited time.
Ruth Kinoti is no stranger to the hardships experienced by women and smallholder farmers as well as the dynamics of business creation as a product of necessity.
She is the Founder and CEO of Shalem Investments Ltd., a family-run agri-business and social enterprise in Meru that is helping to transcend the public health and economic impacts of an overdependence on ugali while supporting small farmers and meeting the needs of low-income consumers, and has been working with GAIN to bring its nutritious products to market.
Like Jufra, Shalem is revitalizing the ancient grain of sorghum, albeit on a much larger scale.
“Our original markets were the schools,” says Kinoti, recounting Shalem’s inception in 1998 when its first suppliers were her farming parents and neighbors whose produce she sold to schools for nutritious meals.
“We have grown from one supplier to the large network of 40,000 farmers that we have today, and our vision is still the same— to market smallholder farmers’ produce at the best possible price. We make business through volume, not through margins, so it is a win-win… The farmer is the base of our business, and what hurts our farmers hurts us.”
As the children of peasant farming families, Ruth Kinoti and her husband Daniel Kinoti, who is the chairman of Shalem, have always understood the challenges that farmers experience to sell their harvest, make ends meet and pay school tuition for their children.
Daniel and Ruth Kinoti of Shalem
“One aspect of being a small farmer is that you are always vulnerable. Finding markets is the biggest challenge. If farmers have a market, then farming becomes a business.”
Kinoti started her business by becoming the proverbial middleman and aggregator, creating a direct market for farmers and a more affordable connection with consumers. Schools eventually began to accept maize and beans as a form of tuition in lieu of cash, in no small part due to her efforts.
“For the first time the farmers were able to sell without waiting for a broker to come and buy,” she recalls with a gratified smile. “Farmers often bring their produce to our factory to sell directly.”
Shalem, a take on the Hebrew word ‘Shalom’ which means peace, currently serves as an aggregator for close to 40,000 smallholder farmers, organized in farmer groups, the vast majority of whom are women, bringing them much needed peace— and stability.
“When you see a farmer receive money for their produce without feeling taken advantage of, that is such a satisfying feeling,” she says.
Shalem sells its nutritional products under the brand Asili Plus. Its blended flour and pre-cooked ugali are fortified with minerals and vitamins. Asili Plus porridge and ugali are supplied to schools and are available in retail shops and markets in Meru and surrounding counties.
Through its growing infrastructure and its close relationships with farmers, Shalem has been able to offer nutritious food at extremely competitive prices to low-income consumers at a time when annual food inflation is in double digits— with prices 15.3% higher in August 2022 than they were a year prior, according to the Kenya Bureau of Statistics.
The poorest of the poor are seldom able to eat more than once a day.
With price increases for ugali being indicative of cost-of-living increases, Kenyans braced themselves when, in July of 2022, ugali was at its highest price historically, with a two-kilogram pack of maize flour retailing at 205 shillings.
With many Kenyan families earning less than 100 shillings per day, it was not surprising when in the weeks leading up to Kenya’s August 9th elections, outgoing Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta cut the cost of maize flour in half.
Current President, William Ruto, has gone on record saying that it will take him a year to reduce the cost of unga, or maize meal, the primary product used in the making of ugali.
Shalem has been actively pursuing solutions for the “sufferings of the vulnerable” and has grown from its role as a facilitator to a substantial agro-processor with the support of GAIN’s Marketplace for Nutritious Foods (MNF) programme, which assists nutritious food SMEs such as Shalem to bring nutritious, accessible and affordable products to market.
Shalem’s latest product is a ready-made fortified ugali that only requires hot water for preparation and takes a short 5 minutes to make instead of the typical 20 minutes. Kinoti says that this solution is good for health, produces time savings for the consumer and, because there is no cooking required, it is also good for the environment.
Shalem continues to serve as an aggregator, a middleman and an agri-processor, and even sells sorghum to breweries but given that its manufacturing business is largely driven by volume, the bottom line is heavily reliant on consistently high supply and demand, which was an issue during COVID-19.
The management at both Shalem and Jufra say that they are still reeling from the economic impacts of the pandemic.
While GAIN provided both companies with emergency assistance during COVID-19, which helped to pay salaries and source raw materials, the family ethos and culture of support of both companies had financial implications against the backdrop of reduced sales.
In Africa, where up to 70% of all food consumed is brought to market by SMEs, there is a significant opportunity to improve nutrition, keep prices down and create markets for farmers by socially minded agribusinesses.
Small and medium social enterprises such as Shalem and Jufra are creating profitability for smallholder farmers, while supporting the most vulnerable and helping to solve the multifaceted food security and nutritional needs of the low-income communities that they serve.
“It’s hard to balance quality and profits when there is an easy environment for compromise, but we haven’t lost our focus,” says Wangeci.
Digital Milling Burs “We have the potential to transform the lives of families and communities,” says Kinoti. “If it makes that kind of difference, then I want to give it my all.”