Mr. Bigg's is the largest fast food chain in Africa's most populous country. This Nigerian chain, loosely modeled on McDonald's, offers hamburgers and French fries as well as local fare. But running a fast food operation is no easy feat in a country beset by mismanagement, corruption, and a lack of infrastructure. David Hecht reports.
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JEB SHARP: In the United States, fast food is ubiquitous, but there are still parts of the world where it’s a novelty. Take Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. There are no MacDonald’s or Burger Kings there. Nigeria does have a homegrown chain of quick-serve restaurants, but providing fast food is no simple matter in a country where the price and availability of food changes constantly. Reporter David Hecht has our story.
DAVID HECHT: Picture MacDonald’s golden arches. Take the yellow M, turn it on its side and add a vertical line to form the letter B. That’s pretty well the logo of Mr. Bigg’s, Nigeria’s biggest fast food chain. Mr. Bigg’s has over 170 outlets in 46 Nigerian cities and towns. They sell hamburgers and French fries, but also local fare.
MAN: This is obgono soup, which is a local soup.
HECHT: Aminu Sumila is Mr. Bigg’s regional manager for northern Nigeria. He and an assistant point out the different foods they make in what they call their fast food village kitchen.
AMINU SUMILA: This is egusi soup. Or melon.
HECHT: What about snails? You have snails here?
MAN: We have snails, yeah.
HECHT: And what about cow foot? That’s another one that’s very popular.
SUMILA: Yeah, yeah, that one is popular.
HECHT: Do you have cow foot?
SUMILA: Yeah, it’s for everybody.
HECHT: It’s not only the food that’s different here. Mr. Bigg’s faces challenges American fast food chains could hardly imagine. Power outages almost every day, often no running water, and prices for ingredients that fluctuate wildly. Mr. Bigg’s tries to negotiate what it pays food suppliers six months in advance, but Sumila says that doesn’t always work.
SUMILA: What we do, if the prices in the market changes, we sit down and renegotiate.
HECHT: But that happens a lot, that you have to renegotiate.
SUMILA: It does happen.
HECHT: And of course, all these price changes, you can’t pass on to the customer.
SUMILA: Yeah, it depends. If more than 50 percent of our raw materials go up, we also do adjustment from our selling price. But that’s a last option.
HECHT: Raising prices is the last option, says Sumila, because fast food customers expect consistency. So it’s even worse when raw ingredients are simply not available, and Mr. Bigg’s has no choice but to pull items from the menu. Imagine MacDonald’s running out of French fries. That doesn’t happen, because in the US and other developed countries, fast food companies buy their ingredients from huge agribusinesses that store food year round to provide a stable supply. Nigeria could function that way too. In fact, its government has invested in what it calls its strategic food reserves to protect against Nigeria’s lean season, but the system doesn’t work. Near the northern city of Kaduna, giant steel silos loom over the farmlands. The silos look impressive from the outside, but inside they’re empty, and they’ve always been empty.
GUIDO FERATTI: Construction began in the early ’90s…
HECHT: Construction engineer, Guido Feratti, says the silos have been standing here unfinished and unused for almost 20 years.
FERATTI: Usually it takes between six months to one year, maximum, to build a silo.
HECHT: He’s now trying to finish the job, which has been delayed and delayed, due to corruption and mismanagement. Nigeria, with its oil riches, is full of big infrastructure that doesn’t work. Unfinished highways that lead nowhere. Huge dams and irrigation projects that lie abandoned. And despite the government’s massive investment in modern agriculture, an estimated 90 percent of Nigeria’s food is grown by small scale impoverished farmers. So each Mr. Bigg’s franchise buys a lot of its food from local vendors. That may help small farmers, but it presents big problems for quality control. So Mr. Bigg’s has installed its own testing equipment to try to assure food safety. Again, regional manager Aminu Sumila.
SUMILA: And when production commences in the morning, there is microbial analysis. After the process, the confirm the product is fit for consumption, and we open the door, we start selling.
HECHT: The system sounds good, but the equipment is in shambles. Wires dangle where machines have been ripped from the wall. Aminu Sumila can’t say when the equipment might be working again. Still, Mr. Bigg’s remains open for business and continues to serve its customers something that resembles fast food. For The World, I’m David Hecht, Kaduna, Nigeria.
SHARP: David Hecht’s travel to Nigeria was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis reporting.