Living on ‘junk’ food

The changing lifestyle among Nigerians and their penchant for imitating Western taste may have accounted for the alarming boom of ‘junk’ foods, eateries and the attendant health concerns in the country, reports Isioma Madike


In time past, Chinese food was the rave in Lagos and other cities across the country. Virtually everybody joined the bandwagon, as it is typical of Nigerians. This witnessed an unprecedented surge of Chinese restaurants operated by Nigerians and at times, in alliance with some Chinese chefs. Besides the fact that Chinese food instantly became the toast of most Lagosians and other Nigerian elite, the dealers, who were the direct beneficiaries of the boom smiled to the banks for as long as the bazaar lasted.

It was like a day in the life of most Nigerians was, perhaps, incomplete without a visit to any of the various Chinese eateries, which dotted the streets in strategic places, in major cities. These eatery joints then became hot spots for all sorts of meetings, business or social gatherings. Soon, everyone, including kids and adults, men and women caught the bug. All of this happened about two decades and half or so ago.

But today, the story has changed. The hitherto high number of Chinese restaurants in the cities has thinned out. While few, though, have managed to keep their heads in some highbrow areas competing with the more visible five star hotels, others have completely closed shop. Some other smaller ones have, indeed, refused to close shop even when it is apparent that they are gasping for breath. In all of these, Chinese food, it seems, are fast finding their ways into the dustbin of Nigeria’s history, paving the way, as it were, for a change of baton to fast food. The change, however, appeared to have signaled the end of an era and opened a new chapter.

Welcome to the crazy world of ‘junk’ food. They are handy eatables that could be purchased and consumed at anytime and anywhere. The foods come in different forms, shapes, sizes and names like meat pie, burger, sausage and the likes. They also come with different taste and appeal but evidently with the same contents. It has become the fad for the city young lovers and kids.

The eateries are usually conspicuous in the neighbourhood, especially because of their strategic locations. Their peculiar architectural structures are captivating as well as their surroundings. They easily command attention even as the pervasive aroma that perpetually hangs in the air tells one a fast food outlet is near.

As fast as the meals, this line of food business is spreading rapidly all over the country. Since the United African Company (UAC) foods gave boost to the revolution on the food market with the opening of Mr. Bigg’s in 1986, which was quickly followed by Tantalizers, Sweet Sensation and Tastee Fried Chicken, it has been, according to Sweet Sensation, “one visit and you are hooked for good.” With that consumer mentality, fast foods have obviously become instant hits in Nigeria. Industry watchers estimate the spread at over 5,000 outlets nationwide.

These branches, according to investigations, exist under over 150 different brand names. The names, which include, Chicken Republic, Favourites, Chiquita, Mr. Fans, Relish, Hunger Buster and many others are as attractive as the business itself. Operators in the industry say this number may be higher if the other less popular operators are taken into consideration. No wonder, some of these operators compare the eatery places to the World’s most famous fast food brand – MacDonald’s.

From homes to work places through the daily long traffic jams in the cities, handy eatables have gained enormous grounds. The craze for fast food, like the Chinese restaurants of yester-years by both the young and old, is on gain. But, the fever this time around seems to be catching on fast on kids, young lovers and the corporate office ladies, particularly the bankers as a way to show class. Indeed, the instant success of the likes of Mr. Bigg’s, Tantalizers and Sweet Sensation appears to be the needed tonic for others that followed.

For the dealers, holiday periods have always provided opportunities for a boom market. The reason is that festive times are about the only periods that give ample opportunity for parents, who are pre-occupied with chasing money to take their kids out to such spots for a change. Before the craze, the womenfolk used to say that “the way to a man’s heart is good food.” This saying, however, is today secondary and complementary. The “gospel” presently seems to be “the way to the family’s heart is the child.” Also, the Biblical saying, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and every other thing shall be added unto you,” appears to have been re-written to read, “seek ye first the soul of the kids and every other member of the family shall be added unto you.”

Incidentally, virtually all the fast food dealers have been able to identify the place of the child in this family brand loyalty contest. The emphasis has been on getting the kids to accept a particular brand, a development that is expected to rub off on the entire family. All the players in this market seem to know this and are employing varied strategies in an attempt to grab this market. For instance, operators now provide play areas and toys for children. An attendant in one of the Sweet Sensation branches in Lagos, who pleaded anonymity, told this reporter that some patrons act more often like the famed Oliver Twist because of the child-friendly atmosphere created in some outlets. “Parents could be enjoying their meals, while their children play with the facilities provided,” says another staff of Fendies in Igando area of Lagos, who also does not want her name in print.

Investigations have shown, however, that ‘big boys’, who are into Advance Fee Fraud, known in local parlance as ‘419’ have rushed into establishing fast food joints, as a way of laundering their ill-gotten monies and concealing their illicit trade. Their entry into the business has, expectedly triggered competition. Incidentally, the fierce competition has not been in form of product innovation as the contenders stock virtually the same product using the same ingredients but different labels. Rather, the competition has been more of words through newspaper, television and billboard advertisement.

Even at that, the advertisements have remained largely similar, both in massage and character. This is because they share the same bottom line, which is to propel a prospective customer to choose one brand of burger, for instance, with a certain label over the other. Mr. Bigg’s was conservative in its marketing drive until the advent of Tantalizers and the other smaller competitors, which could be likened to the emergence of new generation banks that changed the conservatism of the old block. Even though, it launched an awareness campaign, Mr. Bigg’s, perhaps, never saw the need to erect billboards and other things that formed the vital part of aggressive marketing. Its emphasis before now had been more on corporate promotion than product.

However, new operators are emerging almost on a weekly basis, while the old ones are hanging on to their strongholds. Mr. Bigg’s, which is believed to be the clear industry leader with international presence in Ghana, is said to have opened over 200 outlets. Its closest competitor, Tantalizers, is also believed to have over 70 branches countrywide. Their positioning in the market is based on their outlets, spread, increasing brand visibility, turnover and customer loyalty. As a fast way of gaining prominence in the ever-expanding industry, some of them have gone to the regions to try to dominate a particular locality by competing with the more established brands. Fried Chicken and Dreams are concentrated in Abuja, the nation’s capital. Sweeties, Tasty Paradise and Abbey are for now making inroads in the Barnawa area of Kaduna State, while O’Neal, which started operations in Enugu State, has grown and expanded to Abuja.

For Renny’s, Owerri, the Imo State capital remains its main domain, although, it has now spread to Port Harcourt, Aba and parts of Bayelsa State. It is said to have opened over 15 outlets.

The story is not different for Crunches, which also started in 2003 with only one outlet in Aba. Today, it has presence in Kaduna, Abuja and Calabar where it is believed to be highly patronised. Jude Nwosu, executive director of the company was once quoted to have said that his company uses Calabar as a “transit stop” for most visitors to Cross River State.

In Ughelli, Delta State, Taste Alive and Crumbs are the places to be as many transporters plying the Lagos/Port Harcourt route have come to see these two eateries as the place to relax and refresh.

However, stakeholders in the Nigeria quick restaurant business as well as industry report as at 2005 put the sector’s worth at over N325 billion. The report had also revealed that the sector is capable of growing at 40 per cent rate annually.

Just as the industry is growing, the purses of those directly or indirectly eking out a living from the business are swelling as well. For companies with multiple outlets, the gain is enormous. Mr. Bigg’s, which is said to be the cash cow of the UAC group, reportedly had a turnover increase from N900 million in 1999 to N10 billion in 2005. The success story is replicated in almost all the fast food brands.

Folu Ayeni, chairman of Tantalizers, with a N2.5 billion annual turnover may have since realised that his investment in the industry is a step in the right direction. He has every reason to be jubilant. Interestingly, the boom in the industry is driving the growth of other sectors of the economy as producers of basic items associated with the business like cooking gas, flour, sugar, serviette paper and general ancillary service providers are counting their gains as well.

The industry has not done badly too in the areas of employment generation as it is said to be competing with the communication, banking and entertainment sectors with the number of jobs it is creating. The fast food sector absorbs largely unskilled labourers and middle-level manpower. Stakeholders say that the least number of staff a standard outlet could have is 30, while the big players have about 100 staff in each of their outlets.

“This industry is labour intensive. Staff are needed in the kitchen, eating longe, counters, car parks, doorposts and at the management level. We cannot overemphasise the contribution of this business in reducing unemployment in the country,” Kess Akporotur, fast food consultant, was quoted to have said. There are those who believe that the sector may have employed over a million as of today. The increasing growth in that sector has equally stimulated the establishment of fast food consulting companies across the country.

Beyond these, the industry is said to be facing a plethora of challenges. Kehinde Kamson, managing director, Sweet Sensation said “several agencies from federal, state and local governments approach us for levies. From day one, you are harassed from everywhere. The ‘area boys’ and different community leaders are after you.” Kamson also complained that the cost of diesel and maintenance of generators impact negatively on the profitability of the business.

In spite of the goodies, Pat Umunna, ex-worker in one of the fast food eateries has some sore tales to tell. She was excited about the job and vowed to put in her best to ensure that she succeeded in it. But, that was as far as her dreams went.

“I initially thought they were joking when one of them told me to proceed to the ladies for checking. But when I saw that she was serious, I obliged her and when we got in, I was faced with the greatest humiliation I had ever come across in life as she searched me to my pants. As if that was not enough, the women security equally searched to my pants after closing to ensure that I do not leave the premises with anything that belongs to the company,” Umunna recalled.

Yet, if you think that is all that happens in such eateries, then hear Umunna: “Like when there are leftovers from a day’s sales, we are not allowed to touch it; the management would rather throw the food into the thrash can than give people to eat. Since we are most times within, working, we do not go out to buy food. What they do is to prepare food of a lower quality for us to eat, which is glaringly different from what is served to customers. Most of them have no First Aid boxes too in case of minor accidents.”

Like Umunna, many others fear that the eateries may compromise in other ways like environmental abuses, use of substandard materials and even sale of expired products. This fear was particularly confirmed by the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) in 2006. Dora Akunyili, then director-general of the agency said she was shocked when, on enforcement operation, caught one of the big players in the industry selling “stale and unwholesome food and bakery products to unsuspecting public. The water treatment plant installed at the outlet was archaic and malfunctioning, while the laboratory facility expected to ensure in-house quality control was in a sorry state.”

Yet, health experts say that is just one of the many health hazards fast food culture has foisted on the consuming public. The experts are particularly concerned on the growing number of obese people in the country, a problem they attribute to excessive consumption of fast food meals. Dr. Rosemary Peters, senior research fellow (nutrition) at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), Yaba-Lagos, said that most food served in fast food eateries do not have nutritional value, which, according to her, leads to obesity.

“Well, in spite of the tremendous value the fast food eatery has added to the economy, one cannot deny the fact that the junk food it prepares has serious consequences on the health of the consumers. It is very important that people should be aware of what they take. This means that as we talk of the positive side of fast food, we need to know that it also has some negative aspect. It is necessary we point this out since virtually everyone in the society today, one way or the other patronise eateries. There are a lot of negative consequences that could arise from the consumption of the junk food from an eatery.

“One of the major consequences of consuming junk food from eateries is obesity. You will recall that there was a time in the United State of America many people were getting obese. Of Couse, we know that USA is more or less the origin of fast food. Obesity is a precursor to different illnesses. I mean, it leads to various kinds of diseases like cardiovascular diseases, that is, heart-related diseases: diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. The eateries mostly use flour products in their preparations and fry most of the things they prepare,” Peters remarked.

Other experts point to what they call the more worrisome risk of developing cancer due to over-dependent on such meals. They are of the view that pastries especially, could lead to the formation of lumps in the stomach and that if it is not treated early, could lead to cancer. “People should not be too busy to eat right kind of foods. Fast food meals are junk and should be frowned at. That is the secret of Chinese longevity; they are more known with natural foods,” Dr. Abdulsalam Nurudeen, a medical practitioner with Bamgilead Hospital, Lagos admonished.

Nurudeen said the proliferation of fast food outlet signals greater health dangers for the country than the money it brings. Children, he explained, suffer most because “the chemical used in preserving green peas, one of the major food ingredients used in the industry cause Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Children suffering from the ailment are restless and unable to retain information.” Spices are also said to be dangerous to health as excessive consumption of such could “wash away vital microorganisms in the human body, especially those that convert food into vitamins.”

The changing lifestyle among Nigerians and their penchant for imitating Western taste are believed to be driving the alarming boom in the industry. There are also those who say the growth is stimulated by the inclusion of local cuisine in their menu. Before now, the Nigerian fast food outlets sold mainly pies, chips, sandwiches, cakes, French fries, egg rolls, sausages, hamburger and other such pastries that originated from the Western system. But as the industry grows and consumption heightens, many adapt products to meet local needs, taste and culture. Most of them now blend their menu with local cuisines, thereby offering three tiers of services; the fast food, African dishes and continental meals.

The trend, which was once the preserve of Mama Cass, a caterer, who graduated from being a road side Buka otherwise known as “Mama Put” to one of the industry giants, is now embraced by famous, relatively unknown and new entrants into the business.

However, all the players in this market have a common niche, which is service. The fact that they have nothing different to offer in terms of product means much would depend on the service rendered by the personnel. This is where good service comes in. And, perhaps, the decision on where the pendulum would swing rests more on how each player is able to play this niche to advantage.



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