Written by Stuart Graham

It may not be a township

Rita Zwane, founder and owner of Imbizo Shisanyama, banters with her trained braai masters, who hardly raise their eyes as they prepare t-bones, wors sausages and lamb chops over the coals at the grill area.

Orders are pouring in and it’s vital that each piece of meat is barbecued and spiced to perfection. Standards are high here.

This is, after all, South Africa’s first commercialised African braai or shisa nyama.

“Getting together to enjoy a shisa nyama is part of African culture,” says Zwane.

“It goes back centuries. A shisa nyama is about family and friends getting together to braai on an open fire and sharing time together. I provide a restaurant where customers can do that.”

Zwane was a struggling 25-year-old single mother, working three jobs, when she came up with the idea.

She remembers the day well. She was walking in Tembisa, a township east of Johannesburg, looking for inspiration for a new business after her attempt at starting a taxi service had failed.

“I knew there was something out there, I just had to find it,” she says.

Zwane came across a shipping container with the words “meeting place” painted on it. The words sparked an idea.

She thought about her culture and identity and what made it special. It was food, and food went with family and friends.

In the following days she withdrew her life’s savings and bought a container, a two-liter aluminum pot for cooking maize pap, a gas cooker and a meat display fridge.

She found an unoccupied street corner in Ivory Park, a neighbouring township, and set up her kitchen and braai area with plastic tables and chairs for her diners.

Her new business, which she christened Imbizo Shisanyama from the Zulu words biza, which means “to call a gathering” and shisa nyama, which translates as “fire meat”.

Nearly 20 years on Imbizo Shisanyama, known widely as “Busy Corner”, is an institution for locals and a popular stop for celebrities and tourists. Zwane’s business venture succeeded.

Now she is ready for her next step. She wants to emulate the success of the piri-piri chicken franchise Nando's and turn her restaurant into a global quick service, casual dining brand.

The concept is novel, the service is excellent, but has she left it too late? Since the success of Imbizo Shisanyama, franchised fast-food shisa nyama outlets have rolled out in towns and cities across South Africa.

Quick braais are now competing for customers with established companies like KFC, Chicken Licken, Steers and Nando’s.

One of the better-known brands, ChesaNyama, offers a braai in a box – pap, sausage and t-bone – in less than 10 minutes.

The company, part of the Gold Brands group, was founded by fish ’n chips entrepreneur Stelio Nathanael at the Universityof theWitwatersrand in 2012.

It proved so popular at the university that he franchised the concept.

But the plan to grow Imbizo Shisanyama comes at an opportune time. Around the world, a culture of budget consciousness is spreading as people remain financially wary after the credit crisis of the past years.

Research group Euromonitor International says fast food sales in the US are expected to reach some $245 billion in 2018, lead by Burger King, Wendy’s, Subway and McDonald’s, which together make up 31% of the market.

In South Africa, the fast food or quick service restaurant (QSR) sector has enjoyed rapid growth and competition, despite social and economic challenges.

Zeenat Ebrahim, an analyst at Euromonitor, says chained fast-food sales in South Africa grew by approximately 17% to US$1.9 billion last year, while chained casual dining full-service restaurants grew to US$497 million.

Fast-food chicken is the biggest category, with Yum! Brands leading the pack with 700 KFC outlets. Steers, owned by Famous Brands, follows with around 500 outlets.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where The World Bank predicts economic growth of 5.1% in 2017, global fast-food brands are rolling out steadily as the continent enjoys a new era of peace and growing prosperity.

Accurate figures are difficult to obtain, but global chains operating in saturated fast-food markets are searching for new markets and Africa offers enormous potential to boost their long-term profits.

US-based Domino’s Pizza is already operating in Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa. Last November it opened its first outlet in Kenya with a menu adapted for local tastes.

Those eating at its Nairobi branch can enjoy a Swahili Chicken pizza, while customers in Nigeria can enjoy a Chicken Jollof pizza, inspired by a popular West African rice dish, or a Suya Special of spicy marinated meat.

Yum! Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, is expanding into Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. It now has outlets in 14 African countries.

In Kenya, where the IMF forecasts growth of 6.9% in 2015, KFC, Subway, ice-cream chain Cold Stone Creamery and the New Orleans-based Naked Pizza have opened outlets.

Domino’s Pizza is due to open eight branches and Cold Stone Creamery is due to open 10 in Nairobi over the next two years.

Local companies Java House and Artcaffe are investing millions of dollars in new outlets. Java now has outlets in Nairobi and Kisumu and has also opened in Kampala after a cash injection from a US equity firm. This expansion in the fast-food sector comes amid the construction of new shopping malls around Nairobi.

In Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, with a population of 173.6-million, the social and economic dynamics are changing to the benefit of QSRs.

“More women are joining the work force and their traditional roles as the meal preparers are changing,” says Adeola Adejokun, managing director of public relations firm Kiishi Lagos, which consults for the fast food industry.

“Because of this, many urban people are now choosing to eat some of their meals outside of home.”

Adejokun says many small restaurants known as bukkas have opened across Nigerian cities in recent years. Bukkas serve Nigerian traditional meals in open-air areas or in low-cost small buildings.

“Meals are relatively cheaper, and as a result they have gained a loyal following among the Nigerian urban masses,” he says.

For those with more disposable income, fast food restaurants have sprung up across the country to cater for consumers with ‘western’ tastes.

Unlike bukkas, which vary in quality and service, these modern fast-food restaurants are clean and comfortable.

“Care is taken with food handling and the dining environment is kept clean, air-conditioned and furnished,” explains Adejokun.

“These restaurants serve western snacks and fast foods such as meat pies, burgers, fries and ice cream together with traditional Nigerian dishes,” he says.