Street Food

Nairobi: Feeding Kenya’s poor

We explore the role of traditional, cheap dishes in promoting healthier eating and tackling inter-tribal differences.

One of the most striking things about Nairobi is its cultural diversity. More than 42 ethnic communities call the Kenyan capital home, each bringing their unique culture, traditional dishes and approaches to cooking.

As with many cities across sub-Saharan Africa, the divide between rich and poor is stark and Nairobi is no exception. In this episode of Street Food, we look at the implications of rising global food prices on the poor, the efforts to popularise traditional foods, and explore the inter-tribal dynamics of what Kenyans eat.

We meet Judith Mwango, who prepares low-cost packed lunches for her clients who have jobs but don’t have much money. Judith cooks dishes that her customers will like, and that means catering to the traditional tastes of different tribes, such as the Kikuyu people, although she herself is a Kisii.

Susan Kamua, Kenya’s best-known TV chef and a cooking consultant, is attempting to “glamourise” traditional foods. With the appearance of so-called rich man’s diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes, Kamua argues that there’s a growing need for healthier, traditional foods. “Traditional foods are much more nutritious,” she says.

We meet food vendor Millicent, who economises on time, wood and ingredients by cooking in one pot: she simply separates different dishes by putting them into plastic bags in the same pot. And we investigate the influence of the Indian community and how foods such as biriyani and chapatis have become Kenyanised.

Meat, well-loved by Kenyans, remains prohibitively expensive.

We head to two places that specialise in this luxury: the well-known restaurant Carnivore, which is known for serving meat of the savannahs and, 20 kilometres outside Nairobi, we visit the Maasai restaurant Olepolos, which makes Kenya’s most famous dish, nyama choma – a style of barbeque often featuring goat.

Much of Nairobi’s fresh produce comes from the informal sector. We meet Rachel Njoki Ndichu, a milk distributor; 75 percent of Nairobi’s milk is supplied by small producers such as Rachel.

And we head to Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums which has a vibrant internal economy, the supply of food being a major sector, and visit “hotels” – the Kenyan word for cheap eating house.

This episode was filmed soon after Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008, and we look at how the food crisis, tribalism and xenophobia have affected the availability of food. Can traditional dishes foster greater understanding between tribes? Eric Wainaina, whose music addresses tribalism, believes it can. He talks us through the differences between tribes in terms of the food they eat and tells us: “We can’t talk about peace if people’s access to the necessities of life have been curtailed. There can’t be peace without food. There can’t be peace without sustenance.”