From The Frying Pan Into The Fire? Asia’s African Options

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Co-authored by Simone Claar

While we were attending the 1st AADUN-AFRASO conference from 11th to 14th March 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we took the opportunity to explore the city on the fringe of the scheduled conference programme and noticed that a variety of South African products were available on the market. This included the usual selection of South African wines but also extended to such condiments as Mama Africa’s or Ina Paarman’s condiments stocked in the local supermarket. Yet, more surprisingly, we also discovered a couple of Nando’s restaurants in some of the most prominent spots of the city: one, for example, could be found in the Times Square Mall and another bordered on Chinatown.

For us, as scholars who have worked intensively on and lived extensively in South Africa, it was surprising to see this footprint of Africa in Asia. It particularly struck us, because Nando’s is one of the best performing food chains in South Africa and it is famous for its tongue-in-cheek advertising. Nando’s has ventured into the political arena and provided parodies of prominent figures, parties or scandals. It originated out of South Africa’s transnational history in which a Portuguese migrant founded the first store in 1987 and primarily prepares flame-grilled chicken dishes in ‘lemon and herb’ or ‘peri-peri’ style. For a country, such as Malaysia, with its sizeable Muslim community, to exclusively focus on serving chicken as meat lends itself well to halaal dishes and provides a popular alternative in the fast food sector. On the other hand, Asia has left a big imprint on the African continent even before the new wave of Chinese investment in Africa, lest one forget the Cape Malay community that has become part and parcel of South African society over the centuries.

However surprising it might have been for us to see, this was not Nando’s first enterprise outside of Africa, which has spread its wings to Europe, in particular the United Kingdom too. The large South African expat crowd – and many who have travelled to the country – rejoiced when the first store opened in London and they could finally have a taste of home away from home. Next to Debeers, SABMiller and other South African multinationals located there it suggested that Africa was taking its place in the world. Interestingly, South Africa is Malaysia’s main African trading partner. Conversely, Malaysia is South Africa’s largest export and import partner from Southeast Asia and even features in the country’s top 8 globally. Along these lines, Malaysian investors have been routinely invited by the South African government to engage more in the country beyond a hub to the rest of the continent as well.

We might ask ourselves: Could it be that chains, such as Nando’s, might displace direct competition such as KFC, McDonald’s and the like? Within Africa, South Africa has been widely criticised for pursuing hegemonial ambitions by sending its private sector onto the continent. Seeing Nando’s in Malaysia made us interrogate whether these were Asia’s African options? Since the quality in entrepreneurial expansion appears similar on first sight, we wonder whether what we are seeing is a shift from the frying pan into the fire? Excuse the pun.

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