NyamaChoma Ramen

Nyama Choma Ramen: A Development Intervention That’s Ready in 3 Minutes

Instant Ramen. You lived on it at college. Now that you think of it, a bowl still sounds pretty good. And yet…ramen for Africa?!

Yup, Nissin – the Japanese multinational that brought us Cup Noodles – is going there. Since last year, the firm has been marketing the stuff to Kenyan kids in a brazen move to gain life-long customers. There’s even a catchy jingle!

Now, take a moment to check your reaction. Are you horrified? Yeah, you’re horrified. Just admit it.

Developing the sorghum value chain is a top food security policy priority, and Nissin is getting it done without costing Bill Gates a dime.

But why should you be? Calorie-per-calorie, instant noodles may be the cheapest tasty food in the world. They were invented in a post-war Japan wracked by the same food and fuel shortages that many African communities suffer through today.

Sensing a growth market, Nissin is going into Kenya for the long haul. A serious product development effort went into glocalizing the little flavour packets, with Nissin sending food scientists to scour Kenyan barbecue joints and home kitchens in search of a genuinely local taste. Because who’s ever met a Kenyan who doesn’t love Nyama Choma?

It’s not just about yummy noodles, though: there’s more to ramen as development intervention than first meets the eye. There’s a biotech aspect: Nissin has launched a food security research partnership with Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. There’s a humanitarian aspect: Nissin is a major donor to WFP.

But from a Boring Development point of view, the really interesting bit is the sourcingIn Kenya, instant noodles will be made in part with locally produced sorghum. That will provide a stable source of demand for a key food security crop that, until now, has had limited industrial uses. There’s only so much sorghum the breweries will buy, y’know?

The key word there is stable. You can be 100% certain that the project will not be discontinued because a donor pulls funding. This is business, for-profit business, and businesses that make money aren’t expensive to keep going; they’re expensive to stop.

Providing stable market outlets for Sorghum will help solve a very old problem for some of Kenya’s small farmers. Whether they can sell it or not, many have little choice but to keep planting the stuff: sorghum the one crop that will survive drought conditions that will wipe out just about everything else. This defensive strategy against drought leaves them, on good-rain years, sitting on bumper harvests of a commodity there’s little demand for.

So developing the sorghum value chain is a top food security policy priority, and Nissin is getting it done without costing Bill Gates a dime. 

Nissin isn’t just creating dozens of job at their new Kenya facility. And it’s not just donating part of the proceeds from Ramen sales worldwide to WFP, supporting emergency relief operations throughout the world.

It’s giving people options

For women who have to spend hours preparing and cooking ugali from grain, the flexibility of a 3-minute replacement that doesn’t break the bank is hugely attractive. (And, realistically, while instant ramen won’t win any nutrition awards, neither will ugali.)

But the bigger game here is that we need to broaden our idea of what counts as a social enterprise. It’s not just about running old school development projects on a cost-neutral basis.

At times, Social Enterprise looks like NyamaChoma Ramen: traditional for-profit transnationals bringing innovative products to market that we know for certain that the poor value, because they’re willing to pay for them.

But the best part is that if it turns out this was a terrible idea, only Nissin’s shareholders are on the hook.

(BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed did a fantastic story on the universal appeal of instant noodles – listen to it here. )

12 thoughts on “Nyama Choma Ramen: A Development Intervention That’s Ready in 3 Minutes”

    1. Since I started researching this post my two-year-old (who has no idea of Kiswahili) has been running around the house singing “nissinnoodle, nissinnoodle, mlo halisi, mlo halisi…”

  1. Including the private sector (responsibly) is pretty much essential here, but saying that ramen isn’t going to win any nutrition awards means that a major opportunity is being missed. In Kenya, you see deficiencies in vitamin A (84 percent), iron (73 percent) and zinc (51 percent) among children under 5. Fifty-five percent of pregnant women have iron deficiency anaemia. This is the kind of affordable food that, if fortified, could help to address deficiencies at the population level.

    1. Good point. I couldn’t find specific info on Nissin’s fortification approach in English. (Though a quick Google search shows a lot of this kind of work is done in Asia.) I’ll look into it.

    2. Good point Natalie, so lets improve the product with the needed vitamis, so I can call it “coherent adaptation of the product”

    3. Ahh, promoting coherence. Let’s consider it “mitigating nutritional risk” given the fact that ramen is fried and overweight is 25% and rising.

  2. Interesting idea. There are a couple of further public health implications worth considering here. First, how clean is the water used to reconstitute the noodles? Second, some research has been done on the injuries resulting from burns from instant noodle packets. If they aren’t prepared in the right kind of vessel, they can collapse in one themselves or children can easily spill the noodles on themselves. Neither of these insurmountable but they tend not to be the issues that manufacturers spend a lot of time on during marketing.

  3. The only problem I see is the very high salt content in the package of the US stuff. If you toss in some goat meat and veggies its probably about right for four people.
    When I was in Nigeria the staple was mashed yams with hot pepper sauce.

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