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Learning to Cook: insights from Eastern and Central Africa

16th May 2023

By Jacob Fodio Todd, Gamos Ltd.

In January 2020, an automated electric ugali cooking machine video went viral in Kenya. The comments on social media were split, but typically witty and to the point: “we don’t need any more inventions when it comes to Ugali!… cooking ugali is an art! And the mwiko is the brush!” tweeted gospel pop singer Daddy Owen. Resistance to change makes sense, convention would have it that food traditions are among the most conservative in the world. However, like any custom, they are, in ways large and small, in constant flux, as a recent series of MECS publications shows. The papers, with research undertaken in urban and peri-urban areas in Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, and Tanzania, present findings from open-ended interviews, focus groups discussions and kitchen observation, and shed some light on the way people learn to cook domestically, and how this is changing.

Tradition v Modernity

Across all the countries, cooking skills are traditionally passed down in the household through family, largely via mothers, sisters and aunts, i.e., matrilineally. Basic skills are taught to young girls, from as early as 5 years old (in Zambia) to the more commonly cited ages of 7-12 years old (in Tanzania, Zambia, Rwanda, and Uganda). Boys tend to learn later, as teenagers or when they leave home, if at all. Increasingly this generational knowledge transfer is being challenged by other forms of learning to cook, such as lessons in schools and colleges, through cookbooks, television shows, and the internet, particularly YouTube and Facebook. The pace and spread of modern communication methods makes cooking knowledge transfer increasingly easy, progressively global and the studies found that social media platforms in particular are influencing rapid change in cooking habits and practice. A participant in Uganda elaborates “I have done online research on cooking, and it is really effective because if you stick to traditional ways of cooking or how you were taught, you do not discover different ways of cooking, mixing spices”.

One of the key themes running across the papers is the interplay between traditional foods and methods of learning to cook and modern ones, and similarly between different generations. Cooking is often a central and important part of identity, acting as both an expression and preservation of cultural heritage, so protecting traditional cooking habits remains a concern, particularly among older generations. As an elder female participant in Tanzania expresses “cooking is a traditional practice that has been passed down from generation to generation. It is not something that you learn from a book or a video. You have to be in the kitchen and observe the process”. However, there is also belief that traditional and modern ways can co-exist harmoniously. In Uganda an older participant explains “I have kept the old cooking traditions, though when we see new techniques, we teach the children but try to maintain the old ways”. These changes are more pronounced in urban areas, where the pace of change tends to be faster. In Tanzania, researchers observe that their “results suggest that the future of cooking in the urban areas will involve a delicate balance between preserving traditional cooking practices and incorporating modern cooking methods”. Increasingly it appears, there are not only new ways of learning to cook but novel techniques, processes, ingredients, and cooking fuels driving the change.

Changing ingredients, different processes, and new fuels

Lifestyles are changing fast, and new cooking equipment, ingredients and fuels are now available in many areas. Overall, across the reports, cooking processes such as deep frying and baking (for example to make fast foods) are associated with modern cooking and are seen to be increasing in popularity, displacing processes like boiling, deemed more traditional. Other habits are changing; in Uganda, plastic alternatives are used instead of banana leaves to steam matooke; in Tanzania store bought spice blends replace homemade mixes; in Zambia tenderizers like baking soda are used to soften beans and meats; in Rwanda younger people buy precooked beans instead of boiling them at home. Modern energy fuels, such as LPG and electricity, are also making inroads, changing habits and learning.

Time, or the perceived lack of it (often associated with modern life), appears a significant driver in changing cooking practice, and one of the key benefits of modern cooking appliances. A Zambian focus group participant explains “during cooking of Nshima, we no longer have to boil water on the stove, but we use an electric kettle which is faster. Thus, we spend 15 minutes instead of 30 minutes”. With modern fuels, such as LPG and electricity, the heat source is almost instantly available to cook with and they require less monitoring and offer more consistent control than charcoal and firewood. While the perception that traditional fuels are cheaper remains – despite the growing body of MECS research showing the cost effectiveness of electricity – other benefits of modern energy such as time savings, cleanliness and convenience are convincing many in urban areas to favour a shift towards LPG and electricity, if not immediately then when possible. The Rwanda study notes that ‘participants believe that in the future, many people will shift from charcoal to LPG and adopt electric cooking appliances’.

The emergence of new recipes, techniques, appliances and the ease of access to content suggests an increased role for online media, particularly among the young who increasingly use the internet to learn, seek ideas and inspiration. For the moment, this is supplementary to the dominant practice of learning to cook at home in the kitchen through observation with family, established over generations. That said, all the studies show that the role of online platforms is growing fast, supporting a key hypothesis of the research. Perhaps an automated, self-stirring ugali making machine is a leap too far, but learning to cook ugali on an electric stove, or even using a rice or electric pressure cooker, saving on energy and cost, might be the sort of incremental change that both the young and old could get behind. 

Featured Image Credit: Cooking ugali on a rice cooker, Nairobi, 2018, ©Jacob Fodio Todd

Opportunity: Women in Modern Energy Cooking (WMEC) initiative launched