Accra’s fast food fight: McFood takes on Ghana’s local chop bars

By the side of the road in suburban Accra, Beatrice Abanga waits patiently to buy some food. She is in line at one of Ghana’s many chop bars. Often consisting of little more than tarpaulin stretched over a timber frame on the pavement, these basic food outlets are ubiquitous in the country’s towns and cities.

After a hard day’s work, countless Ghanaians flock to these humble businesses, which offer cheap and quick meals – usually consisting of a staple such as fufu or banku along with some sauce such as “pepper” or “soup”.

“I’m tired after work and our normal food takes too long to cook,” says Abanga. “All that pounding and slow cooking, that is for villagers.”

As well as convenience for hungry customers, chop bars also provide crucial employment in Ghana, particularly for those with little education or specialised training.

“I didn’t go school, so no office work for me,” says Ruth Adjei, wielding her large spoons as she serves her regulars from behind the counter. “I learnt this work at home from my mum, who learnt it from her mum.”

“I have five pikin [children] home and since I started here, they do not go sleep hungry,” she

continues. “As they grow up, they can work here too.”

In these ways, Ghana’s ever-present chop bars have established themselves as a central facet of urban life. They are synonymous with fast food in Accra, though they have begun to see more and glitzier competitors enter the scene. In the capital, a second Burger King and fourth KFC have recently opened, while a seventh Pizza Hut is on its way.

These international franchises are increasingly popping up. They are hoping to corner new markets, though many residents of Accra remain sceptical towards these unfamiliar entrants and the goods they offer.

“[There’s] nothing solid or nutritious in this funny food,” says Samuel Mensah, standing warily in the newly-opened Burger King. “Take away all that [branding] and what is left to satisfy you?” adds his wife Mary looking up at the colourful menu.

The high prices of these restaurants are also a huge turn-off for most Ghanaians. While a filling meal from a chop bar costs just a few cedis, Burger King’s supersized Whopper sets customers back Ghc37 ($7.25). That is more than some skilled office workers earn in a day.

Even the cost of an “economy” meal deal at around Ghc15 ($3) is shocking to some.

“Fifteen cedis!” exclaims Adjei when told of the price of a burger, some fries and a drink at a Burger King. “I can feed all seven at home for that.”

In setting up shop in Ghana therefore, pricy international fast food chains may face an uphill challenge. For now, the sections of society interested in, and able to afford, their offerings remain relatively small.

However, as the economy grows, these new businesses may find that they are swimming withthe current rather than against it. Ghana’s GDP is projected to grow at 7.6% in 2019, more than double the global average, and the country’s birth rate continues to fall. This means there is more money to go around. Furthermore, the country is urbanising quickly. Greater Accra is Ghana’s fasting growing region, and it is often on the edges of this swelling capital that middle-class suburbs are emerging. It is here that richer people live and where higher-end businesses are being built.

These broad economic trends mirror a shift in Ghana towards more comfortable and expensive lifestyles. For instance, air-conditioning units and in-house toilets are slowly becoming more common. Car ownership rates are growing. And there has been a proliferation of shopping malls around the city. It is often in these establishments that international fast food outlets are located alongside cinemas, playgrounds and other forms of entertainment.

International restaurant franchises eyeing Ghana may also be encouraged by its growing youth. Like on the rest of the continent, Ghana’s population is very young with an estimated 47% of people aged 19 or under. More experimental, less stuck in their ways, and more susceptible to Western firms’ marketing efforts, young people are a crucial target market for these new international businesses.

Winning this group round may be the key to success. In fact, Samuel and Mary Mensah said they were only in Burger King because their children had “dragged them in”. A similarly sceptical customer, Elizabeth Boakye, told the same story. “We didn’t want to come,” she said, “but the children insisted”.

These trends suggest that while progress may be slow, time may be on the side of high-end fast food outlets willing to take risks early. If incomes continue to grow, international chains may consolidate their place in urban Ghanaians’ range of food options, encouraging and catering to newer and younger tastes.

If this happens, traditional chop bars could find themselves squeezed. Over time, they may be in danger of falling victim to “progress” – in other words, to the marginalising and disempowering effects of global capitalism – like countless informal hawkers elsewhere in Africa. For now, however, this fate still seems a long way off. For the many Ghanaians struggling to make ends meet, like the customers in the queue to Adjei’s small business, both the convenience and cheapness of chop bars will continue to ensure their popularity for some time to come.

“Here, the food is waiting for us,” says Abanga, getting ready to hand over a few cedis for her substantial and nutritious dinner. “Just next to our house.”

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