Kenyan consumers confusing Japanese products with Chinese goods

Japanese products on display at a Nakumatt supermarket.

Japanese products on display at a Nakumatt supermarket

One of the challenges Japanese companies face in Kenya is the confusion of their products with Chinese goods. So says Atsuhiko Naoe, managing director of the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO) for Kenya.

In Asia, he explains, consumers can tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese writing used on the packaging of products. Kenyan consumers, on the other hand, get mixed up.

“Kenyan distributors constantly tell Japanese companies to show Kenyans what really is a Japanese product. But many Japanese companies want to bring products here without making any changes, leaving consumers confused on where exactly the product is from. If a [Japanese] company wants to penetrate the Kenyan market, they have to make some changes to the packaging,” said Naoe.

Japanese exports to Kenya have been rising steadily but is dominated by motor vehicles and parts, heavy machinery, and steel products.

JETRO now wants to grow consumption of Japanese “daily products” in Kenya. This week it launched its ‘Antenna Shop’, a one-month campaign showcasing products from eight Japanese companies at retail stores across Kenya. A similar exhibition was conducted in 2014.

The JETRO Antenna Shop has been set up at three Nakumatt supermarkets in Nairobi, among other locations.

The aim is to engage customers and provide feedback to the participating companies, along with sales records.

Naoe believes the data collected should help the companies improve their understanding of the Kenyan market.

Companies showcasing their products include household detergent manufacturer Daiichi Sekken; Toyotomi, which is testing reaction to its kerosene heater and cooking stove; and Panasonic Corporation, showcasing solar energy equipment.

During trials in 2014, Toyotomi learnt consumers in Kenya prefer smaller stoves that don’t “take too much space in the kitchen”. It also discovered most people use rounded paper as opposed to funnels to refuel kerosene, and that there were no kerosene heaters available in the market, yet cold temperatures are prevalent in July and August.

Naoe noted Japanese companies have “a strong interest in Kenya’s growing consumer market”. An estimated 40 Japanese companies currently operate in Kenya. Last year, fast-food chain Teriyaki Japan, owned by Toridoll Corporation, opened a branch in Nairobi and announced plans to expand to 10 stores.

“Over the last 15 years’ African economies have grown and the middle class has expanded. During the same time Japanese companies have made investments in China and in other Asian markets so they are now looking for new markets. Japanese companies have realised there is an opportunity to sell in Africa,” Naoe added.

Nakumatt business development manager Neel Shah said Japanese products displayed in the 2014 exhibition got positive responses.

“The last JETRO Antenna Shop was really good. There is a lot of curiosity so people were trying out the products. A few sweets, chocolates, biscuits and cooking stove [brands] that were showcased last time were retained and are still stocked in our stores,” explained Shah.

He added the retailer’s partnership with JETRO will not undermine local manufacturers.

“We already stock a lot of local products. We are ambitious in trying new products because Nakumatt deals with 191 nationalities – these are people shopping in Kenya alone. We know this from our loyalty card programme data. We need to cater for everyone’s needs.

“We have got about 500 Japanese shoppers [for example],” said Shah. “Our duty is not only to support local products but also to give customers what they are looking for. Customers are exposed to the world market, [and those from foreign countries] want whatever they are used to shopping back home.”