* Local entrepreneurs seize opportunity to set up restaurants
* Growing middle class spurs demand for Western food
* For many though, local cuisine trumps burgers
By Matthew Mpoke Bigg
ACCRA, Jan 16 (Reuters) - As the boss of one of Ghana’s busiest restaurants, Afua Asante has a lot on her plate, from managing a team of 40 to ensuring each dish is cooked just so. This week she has an extra headache: her palm wine supplier may be trying to cheat her.
Asante sources the wine from the town of Adawso in eastern Ghana, several hours drive from Accra, but it ferments quickly and the customers who order it by the calabash will not take kindly to wine that’s not fresh.
Asante, 50, is one of a new breed of restaurant owners in Ghana’s capital, serving a middle class that is expanding despite economic problems that have led the government to seek help from the International Monetary Fund.
The economy is worth $37.5 billion, too small for the likes of McDonald’s, leaving a niche for African restaurateurs such as Asante, who grew up in a village in eastern Ghana, to set up shop.
Most of the restaurants target business travellers, expatriates and tourists but the sweet spot is Africa’s middle class and serving ‘aspirational’ Western food such as burgers or European dishes. Asante’s success is built on offering an alternative.
“My secret is that there are so many foods that people used to eat in the village and they can’t get now,” Asante said.
She opened Azmera restaurant in Accra six years ago, offering a 66 cedi ($20) buffet menu featuring staples such as fufu, made from pounded cassava and plantain, and banku, made from fermented maize and cassava.
It also serves specialities such as palm wine and cocoyams, less common in restaurants than the ubiquitous yams. Other dishes include green soup with snails, crab, smoked fish and mushrooms.
Most lunchtimes, Azmera - a name chosen by Asante’s daughter - is full with business people, its main clientele. But running the place is a challenge and Asante has to solve most problems such as the dodgy palm wine herself.
“I told them that I will be there myself to taste it. If it’s not fresh, I won’t buy,” she said.
Sub-Saharan Africa spends more on food as a percentage of its income than any other region of the world yet its restaurant sector - South Africa aside - is smaller than elsewhere, said industry expert Aaron Allen.
But Africa’s middle class is expanding with 128 million households expected to be on an annual income of $5,000 or more in 2020, up from just 85 million in 2008, according to a report by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
As economic growth increases household incomes, eating out should take off over the next decade, Allen said.
In many countries, fast food outlets often lead that change but with the exception of South African company Nando’s and KFC, owned by Yum Brands Inc, few big chains have opened beyond South Africa.
“It’s very difficult for them to figure out local supply chains and hiring and government regulations,” Allen said, adding that scale can be a disadvantage in a small market.
African entrepreneurs are seizing the opportunity instead.
Eric Andoh, who lived in Britain for years, returned to Ghana a few years ago. He hoped to invest in the construction and real estate sectors before deciding to set up Starbites restaurant offering a menu of things he liked to eat: sandwiches, burgers, pizza and African food.
The business boomed and he now has three outlets in Accra with plans to open more in the capital’s metropolitan area.
On one recent weekday, a couple of local celebrities were spotted at a Starbites outdoor cafe in the upmarket East Legon neighbourhood.
“We had to educate some of the customers because they don’t know what Caesar salad or penne cream pasta are,” Andoh said.
Running a restaurant is high stress anywhere but owners said it is tougher in Ghana due to irregular power supplies, corruption at the port that raises the cost of imports and staff who fail to grasp the ethics of good service.
Often it demands innovation and Asante said she bought cell phones for her suppliers out in villages so they could keep her up to date about the best, cheapest cassava, palm wine or goat meat.
But most said the rewards outweighed the risks.
Richard Laryea opened Tante Marie restaurant in an Accra suburb to serve high-quality traditional African food from Ghana and Ivory Coast such as grilled tilapia and jollof rice to locals and tourists.
He now has two other outlets in shopping malls in the city and only the high cost of finance has stopped the business growing further, he said.
Nabil Moukarzel, who runs consumer goods company Finatrade Group, started casual dining restaurant Yard Bird last year. He plans to set up more branches in Ghana and then take the franchise elsewhere in Africa. He is undeterred by the economic slowdown.
“Forget the blip. These two years are difficult but long term the hospitality business will grow,” he said. (Editing by Susan Fenton)