Mama making ugali (nsima) over a 3 stone fire in Kisii, Kenya (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)
After watching their Mamas spending hours over an open fire, sweating over the daily dish of ugali or nsima or fufu – the African kitchen’s favourite carbohydrate – inventors and innovators across the continent are taking the initiative to ease her burden with nifty, new kitchen appliances.
While culinary details differ from region to region – West Africa’s fufu is cassava based, while East Africa’s ugali is made of maize – the essential element in common is the time and effort involved in cooking the stiff, sticky, starchy staple.
The latest is from a young man in Malawi, who, after 3 years of tinkering that’s reminiscent of Dyson’s obsessive iteration, has successfully prototyped an nsima (or ugali) cooker. It makes the perfect maize porridge of the type you see Mama stirring in the photograph in just 36 unsupervised minutes.
And that’s where he’s at with the product, which can also be started remotely by the ubiquitous mobile phone.
On the other end of the continent, however, Togolese electronics engineer Logou Minsob has gone much further with his award winning invention, the FouFouMix. It converts pre-cooked cassava into fufu in less than 10 minutes.
Fufu or foufou is made from pounded yam also known as cassava. The tuber is cooked and then pounded into a particular sticky consistency. This article from Ghana, whose myths claim it as a food for the gods, describes the entire back-breaking process taking many hours and many hands to get just right.
This visualization of the process is his older model – there’s already a new model in production and the factory is in full swing. Why I find it interesting however is due to its similarity with this visual of yet another indigenous invention, the idli maker – the idli is a South Indian steamed rice cake.
As you can see, those wheels are made of granite – considered the only way to grind the soaked and fermented rice into the right consistency to be steamed in specially designed pans.
There’s a pattern of arduous consistency being translated into convenient time saving mechanisms. Backbreaking labour is inspiring invention.
This is exactly how the giants of home appliances began their global brands, through the invention of washing machines and dishwashers and vacuum cleaners – all the things that made life easier for the industrial era’s housewives. Domestic appliances revolutionized daily life, minimized the need for servants and opened up a world of learning and leisure for women in the industrialized world.
Yet, neither of these appliances are commonly found in superstores anywhere in the world, nor are they products that any of the big name brands would think to develop. While the Indian product is certainly meant for a regional niche, unlike a pressure cooker, say, the African devices newly being invented are not. Each have potential across their entire regions.
Indigenous product innovation and opportunity
And this potential new market opportunity goes beyond product innovation or category creation. Just like the labour saving devices of the previous century, these have the potential to truly liberate women from the hours spent on the most basic household chore – cooking the daily meal.
Unlike the social enterprise attempts to focus on health benefits of smokeless stoves or solar lamps, these have emerged organically from local inventors spotting an opportunity for genuine innovation. The demand certainly exists, and its one that is independent of the household’s income range.
There’s a whole new market opportunity to be tapped, by these and other such similar inventions, if only consumer brands would take a moment to notice.