Sukari Tamu (Sweet Sugar)



When I first arrived in Kenya I went for lunch with a colleague, to a car park stall where a woman sold ugali, sukuma wiki, beans and chapatti. It became my favourite lunch spot. On the way back, she took me past one of Nairobi’s many sugarcane vendors and for a meagre Ksh20 ($0.16) he wielded his machete, quickly removed the hard skin off a length of sugar cane and chopped it into bite sized pieces.

As we walked back, chewing the sweet juice out and spitting the pulp, my colleague informed me that sugar cane was very good for your teeth. Yes. Good for teeth.

As poorly committed anti-sugar crusader (I’ve tried to give it up a few times, with varying success), I was horrified, but being new in town I just squeaked, “but isn’t sugar bad for your teeth?”

No, no, she told me. The fibre cleans your teeth. While I hate to be wrong, it seems there is some truth to this.

Despite the ubiquity of sugar cane being sold on the street, most Kenyans will tell you (as they heap three sugars into their tea) that they don’t really eat sweet things.

This is somewhat true: most traditional foods are savoury, and the few deserts are either fruit based, or only mildly sweet in flavour, like the local doughnut, mandazi. This is perhaps unsurprising, as the sugar industry in Kenya is a relatively new thing linked to the history of Indian agricultural settlement during the colonial years.

Post-independence, the industry has become seriously politicised, with the state aggressively pursuing self-sufficiency in sugar production. Despite half a decade of efforts, this hasn’t been realised.

Despite the size if the industry, the country is facing a “structural sugar deficit” – consumption stands at 800,000 metric tons per year, but production remains below 500,000 tons. Which when each Kenyan consumes 400 grams of sugar per week, isn’t surprising. Within Africa, their consumption is only  exceeded by residents of Swaziland and South Africa. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum sugar intake for adult women of 140 grams of sugar per week, 252 gram for men, and 84 grams for children.

I had the pleasure of visiting the ‘sugar belt’ of Kenya last week, located in the Western district where rainfall and sunshine are offered in equal parts, making it ideal territory for food production. Yet it wasn’t just practicality that influenced this decision:

“the state felt it was necessary to introduce sugar-cane production in Western Kenya because by 1966 this part of the country was already feeling that the government was not taking care of their interests. This followed the resignation of Oginga Odinga from the government after disagreeing with Kenyatta [will history repeat?] …. Indeed there were already signs of growing ethnic tensions in the country with a feeling that Kenyatta’s ethnic group was being favoured in the development process. The Luo community who reside in the present sugar belt was particularly unhappy since many of them were feeling marginalized politically and economically. The introduction of sugar-cane farming in this region was therefore partly aimed at giving the people of the region an assurance that the government was still ready to take care of their economic interests even if Odinga, the undisputed leader of the community, had fallen out with the government.” (Peter Wanyande, 2001)

Like so much in Kenya, tribe is everything. How sweet.


August 18, 2013 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

Mombasa Weekend

photo (10)Mombasa is everything Nairobi is not. While Nairobi can feel like Any Big City, Mombasa has a strong sense of culture and place. While Nairobi’s streets empty after dark, Mombasa’s streets are packed with people eating street food, selling clothes, and living their lives. It has bustle. (more…)

July 20, 2013 at 8:27 am 2 comments


Kenyan admiration of Barack Obama is not to be underestimated. Two school’s from Obama’s father’s province of Nyanza have been renamed in his honour, a university is in the works, while Senator beer is now referred to as Obama beer. And there’s a few Obama matatu’s around the place too.


May 22, 2013 at 8:28 am 1 comment

To Hell’s Gate (and back again)

When I was taken to see Disney classic, The Lion King, at the tender age of nine by my great-grandparents, I never imagined I’d find myself, 20 years later, standing in the national park that it was set in.

While we didn’t see any lions, Hell’s Gate National Park is seriously impressive. (more…)

May 13, 2013 at 11:01 am 2 comments

Langata Giraffe Centre


This weekend we visited the Langata Giraffe Centre – and loved it.

The centre, run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Kenya (AFEW), who work to conserve the endangered Rothschild giraffe. This sub-species of giraffe  was once common across East Africa, but is now extinct in Sudan with only 670 remaining in the wild across Kenya and Uganda.

One of their distinguished features is their pale legs. As a result they are sometimes called ‘white socks’, because they look like they’re wearing a bus-drivers knee high white socks. (more…)

April 28, 2013 at 1:42 pm Leave a comment

Meatless is murder

nyama choma

Nyama Choma (Photo: Chris Gansen)

Kenya is famous for many things – big live animals, long distance runners and spawning Obama’s father and big animals – roasted.

Kenya’s national dish, nyama choma, is gristly, fatty roasted meat; beef or goat, and less often, chicken or fish. What’s that on the side of the plate you ask? Salt, for dipping, naturally. I’m assured by carnivorous Kenyans and expats that this is a not-to-be-missed experience. In fact, visitors passing through Nairobi are encouraged to visit the aptly named Carnivore restaurant (although no self-respecting local would pass up the roadside option).

Yet, vegetarianism isn’t as foreign to Kenyans as many would lead you to believe. The Kikuyu and Wakamba tribes who were traditionally agricultural rather than cattle rearing, were largely vegetarian eating ‘sweet potatoes, corn, beans, bananas, millet and Kafir corn or sorghum’. (more…)

April 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm Leave a comment

Matatus for the people

Last weekend I braved my first matatu ride. I’d go as far as to say I enjoyed it. Like a fun park ride, being on a matutu involves paying too much to be jostled and bumped about, while music blares and you question if you’re going to make it off again.

As one travel guide suggests, matatu’s run on ‘more or less fixed routes’, and as I’ve discovered, at a more or less fixed price. More for wazungus, more when it rains and more in peak hour. As private operators, they understand the rules of supply and demand and apply it with out mercy. (more…)

April 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm Leave a comment

Radio Nairobi is written (and photographed) by Jesse Dean, as she spends 12 months in Nairobi



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