Cash-strapped Kenyans getting nutritious relief from matumbo

“Matumbo ni nyama.”

This is a street proverb that likens matumbo (offal) to meat.

Matumbo, it seems, offers the millions of poor Kenyans who cannot afford highly priced beef or goat meat a false sense of gentrification.

No one knows this better than Hannah Atieno, who has been selling matumbo since 1994 at Shauri Moyo (Burma) market, Nairobi.

Matumbo has been flying off the pans.

“People love matumbo because its price is low compared to that of meat,” says Atieno, noting that this popularity has since attracted a lot of people to the business of selling offal.

Official data on prices of 16 consumer items shows that the price of matumbo has increased highest at 61 per cent with a kilogramme retailing at an average of Sh260 last year from Sh161 in 2011.

The price of meat, says clinical nutritionist Henry Ng’ethe, has generally been going up.

The data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), showed that the price of beef with bones recorded the second highest increase, a kilo retailing at an average of Sh436.7 last year, a jump of 53 per cent from Sh285 a decade earlier.

The increase in price of meat is both an indicator of growing demand as people’s disposable incomes rise and their appetite for the delicacy increases.

“Matumbo is the only ‘meat’ that people can afford, they are economically stressed.

“Even if you have Sh500, you don’t not have unga or anything else, you will still eat matumbo because it is cheaper,” says Ng’ethe.

He, however, says this is also a reflection of depressed supply as agricultural land on which people reared livestock has shrunk due to sub-division.

“People have really sub-divided their ancestral lands, meaning it is very difficult to keep many animals.”

In places around towns and cities, agricultural land has paved way to real estates and the little that is left has mostly been dedicated to milk production.

There is also the problem of drought which has cut water and livestock feed. Moreover, many young people are not embracing agriculture and want white collar jobs.

“Population is going up, the rearing of animals is going down and there is little that county governments have done to support agriculture,” says Ng’ethe.

Although agriculture grew by 4.8 per cent last year and was the plank that supported an economy that was ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, its contribution to the national cake shrunk from 34 per cent to 21 per cent after the size of the economy was reviewed this month.

The service industry in urban areas has been growing at the expense of agriculture, and this means that the country’s food security is threatened.

Over two million people in 13 counties are facing starvation as drought ravages the northern parts. Livestock is dying for lack of water and pasture.

But matumbo may be loved by the poor as a cheap version of beef, but even those who can afford red meat are shunning it for health reasons.

Atieno says that she gets a lot of customers who do not eat meat due to lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Ng’ethe concurs, noting that the popularity of matumbo has grown as people have become more nutrition-conscious.

“Matumbo is also nutritious. Remember that is where most of the nutrients are absorbed, in the gastrointestinal tract,” he says, adding that the digestive system which includes esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and anus is also rich in protein.

“Matumbo is very lean, it does not have a lot of fat. The worst thing about some other meat is that you will get lots of cholesterol, more so if it is fatty.”

But people are also preferring matumbo for its taste “more so if it is cooked very well.”

If not cooked well, it can be a turn-off.

When Atieno started her business in 1994, a kilo of matumbo was selling at Sh40.

“That time there were not a lot of people selling matumbo. Those selling were about 10.”

But today, she estimates that there are more than 3,000 people selling matumbo in Burma market alone.

“There are no jobs. Those who finish school come and do this work. It is young girls and boys doing it,” she says.

Cut throat competition has meant that the traders have to do with lower margins.

Atieno says they get between Sh10 and Sh20 per kilo having bought it at Sh180. “You need to sell a lot to get a good return.”

Last year, they bought a kilo at Sh150 and sold it at Sh170.

But the market for matumbo can be volatile. For example, a few weeks ago, there was so much matumbo and a lot of it went bad.

However, there has been scarcity in the recent weeks. “There are customers who haven’t got any for two days.”

She says that when matumbo gets to the market at 6am, much of it is taken up by hotels that buy from 30 to 50 kilos.

“By 8am, a lot of people (sellers) have finished work, they just want to go home,” Atieno says.

But there are days when you can get matumbo in the evening.

In the many eateries at Burma market, one of the most popular delicacies is matumbo, which tends to go with a lot of ‘saucers,’ an additional slice of ugali that customers are get for free.

As the economy has grown, incomes have gone up with a bulge in the number of middle-class families.

In addition, tastes and preferences have also changed with a lot of people preferring white meat, mostly for health reasons.

A study done in April 2019 by Kenya Markets Trust Society (KMTS), showed that chicken is the most consumed meat among the high income and middle class.

“A Study on Meat End Market Trends in Kenya,” explained that the popularity of chicken among these income groups is due to their increasing sensitivity to health as well as safety.

Consumers of meat are also concerned about the genuineness of products, with some fearing red meat for possibility of eating wild animals.

Quality, safety and reduction in household size are other factors that are driving up consumption of chicken.

With volumes of studies showing a correlation between red meat and lifestyle diseases such as cancer and obesity, a lot of people have been ditching beef, goat meat and other red meat for chicken and fish.

Other items whose prices rose the fastest, according to the Economic Survey 2021, include English potatoes which increased by 41 per cent to retail at an average of Sh67 per kilo from Sh47 in 2011.

Last year’s price was, however, a reduction from Sh71 in 2019.

Sukuma wiki’s price increased by 35 per cent to retail at Sh49 per kilo compared to Sh36.

A kilo of maize grain, the country’s staple food, was retailing at Sh49, having increased from Sh38 in 2011.

Changes to consumer spending have had far-reaching ramifications on the economy since there are warning signs that the spending is already declining, with some items believed to be out of reach.

Entrepreneurs have been quick to lunge at the opportunity as they put most of their money into production of food.

Between 2009 and 2018, manufacturing of food products registered the fastest job creation at 68 per cent, according to the Statistical Abstract for 2018.

Low-income households spend close to half of their income on food and non-alcoholic beverages, which means that an increase in prices of food hits them the most.

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