Instant Noodles in Kenya? Probably not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of African food. But Nissin Foods, a Japanese company known globally for its cup noodles and instant meals, is now branching out to African markets, and tapping into the potential of local crops.
Available in supermarkets since 2013, Nissin Foods has developed an instant noodle product customized to Kenyan tastes by using whole-grain durum wheat flour (atta) and sorghum as an alternative to refined white wheat flour.
Nissin Kenya’s managing director Daisuke Okabayashi, agreed to share with us the story of creating such a product, joined by Bioversity International scientist, Yasu Morimoto, who played a role in bringing sorghum and other traditional crops to his attention.
Tell us a bit about the interest in the African market?
Okabayashi: Our first experience in Kenya was in 2008. Nissin Japan had a Corporate Social Responsibility programme in collaboration with the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). We provided machinery and instant noodles to support a Free Lunch Programme in primary schools. From there, we turned to explore commercial opportunities. Last year we signed a public-private partnership with JKUAT to form JKUAT/Nissin Foods Ltd.
Has it been a challenge to bring instant noodles to the Kenyan market?
Okabayashi: Our biggest challenge is introducing something new – Kenyans have quite a conservative food culture. In Japan, everybody knows what instant noodles are, here we have to explain everything – what is it made from, how to cook it…
How did this idea of using locally available crops come about?
Okabayashi: I saw local crops as a marketing opportunity, because our competitors mainly import noodles from other countries. We wanted to develop something unique, an original concept that is accepted by Kenyan consumers. That is when Morimoto-san introduced me to some local grains, such as sorghum, pearl millet, and finger millet. I was interested because those grains are familiar to local people and also nutritious.
Morimoto: We met about 4 years ago in a restaurant. I knew that there was someone from Nissin around promoting instant noodles, and I had this idea of creating new markets for traditional food crops, so I wanted to interact with him. When I shared my idea, Okabayashi-san agreed that we could make some sample noodles. So I purchased sorghum, pearl millet and finger millet flour from the local market (about 5kg each), and brought it to the factory where we made the very first noodles together. We didn’t know how it would go, but I thought it would be great if a big company like Nissin could use local ingredients.
What happened after the first sample?
Okabayashi: The biggest challenge was convincing people in my head office! When I tasted the prototype sample, I thought it was good. We also tested it with Kenyans – university students and staff in JKUAT, local people in the market, people with different economic background, gender and age. I was very confident because people liked the texture, colour and the concept of using different ingredients. But these were the first instant noodles with sorghum in the world! So I sent the prototype to Japan, but my supervisors did not understand why Kenyans like these noodles. For Japanese, we prefer a more chewy ‘al dente’ texture for noodles, but with sorghum flour it is grainier.
How did you convince them?
Okabayashi: Well, this is the only locally customized instant noodle in the market, so it is a strong concept. Kenyans also don’t have preconceptions about instant noodles, so we could pioneer this texture in the market. Actually they like the brown colour, because Kenyans like their food well cooked, and to them the white colour looks like it is raw. So I did a lot of market surveys to support my case, and in the end we created two flavours: Chicken and Nyama Choma, which is a local roast meat dish.
How come sorghum was chosen over pearl and finger millet?
Okabayashi: Sorghum is more stable and easier to procure, both for quantity and quality. We are currently outsourcing the noodles and ingredients from India, but once we finish building our factory in Kenya (JKUAT campus) next year, we will be sourcing our materials locally and hire local staff.
Morimoto: One of the problems with pearl and finger millet is that the supply is less stable and quality control is difficult – there are often small pebbles inside. But there might be ways to overcome this. I know a professor from JKUAT interested our experience and who wants to develop a new machine to refine these small-sized grains.
Are Nissin Foods interested in trying other local ingredients in the future?
Okabayashi: Yes, but from a business point of view, we are interested in marketability and uniqueness. If there is a market and stable supply, then we can use that ingredient.
Morimoto: One of Okabayashi-san’s Nissin colleagues was interested in using yam or cassava starch to increase the stickiness of the noodles. I think there is a huge hidden potential for these lesser-used crop species, many of which are high in protein, rich in minerals, gluten-free and so on.
Is Bioversity International also looking at other possible products where companies could use underutilized species?
Morimoto: We have some ideas. In Ethiopia, we are hoping to introduce teff for pasta or noodles. But we can also explore the potential of using yam, cassava, banana, or ensete starch… The key thing here is moving into food processing. One thing we learned from our other projects, such as promoting traditional leafy vegetables, is that promoting local use can only go so far. If we partner with a food processing company, we can create a stable demand for traditional crops that will encourage local farmers to produce more. For example, sorghum is drought-resistant and locally available, but as it has a low market value, so farmers rather grow maize or wheat, even when they know they are less nutritious or suitable to local growing conditions.
For Nissin, instant noodles are considered globally as a fast food, but using local ingredients with high nutritional value could change peoples’ attitudes. It could be seen as something that is cheap and easy to cook, but also healthy. Fast food is also in fashion for young people, even in rural villages where people might not change their attitudes as easily. If this fashion can also be nutritious, it can make a significant contribution to food security and the quality of diets.