Fake KFCs Thrive in Sudan Despite U.S. Sanctions

  • U.S.-styled restaurants appeal to Khartoum's wealthy residents
  • South African pizza, burger chains have franchises in city

Almost 20 years of U.S. sanctions on Sudan aren’t stopping Yasser Moustafa tucking into a bucket of fried chicken from a red and white-decorated restaurant with a logo of a mustachioed senior citizen.

Stepping into Kafory Fried Chicken in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, the 43-year-old engineer could choose anything from a crispy-chicken sandwich and Coke at 30 Sudanese pounds ($5.22) to a 15-piece bucket for seven times that price. That’s expensive for the country, blighted by decades of armed rebellions, where the average working person earns $4.80 a day and the nearest African outlet of Kentucky Fried Chicken is in Aswan, Egypt, about 950 kilometers (590 miles) to the north.

“I have a good customer base and I’m looking into opening more branches,” Atef Abdullah, the restaurant’s owner, said in an Aug. 16 interview. He gestured at the company emblem of a grinning, avuncular gentleman: “That’s a picture of my brother, not Colonel Sanders."

MAP: Sudan
MAP: Sudan

Kafory is one of a growing number of fast-food options in Sudan’s capital, where eateries inspired by U.S. giants such as Yum! Brands Inc.’s KFC and Starbucks Corp. compete with franchises of South Africa-based Famous Brands Ltd.’s Debonairs Pizza and Steers, which sells hamburgers. While U.S. sanctions, in place since 1997 for alleged sponsorship of terrorism, have kept the major brands out, U.S.-styled snacks have found a market with Khartoum’s small number of wealthy residents.

Global Trends

Sudan’s middle class has seen a "notable, and consistent" rise over the past decade and comprises more than 820,000 households, or 14 percent of the country’s total, according to a July 2014 report by Johannesburg, South Africa-based Standard Bank Group. By 2030, that’s expected to more than double to 1.9 million households, or about a quarter of the population.

A 2012 report by the McKinsey Global Institute ranked Khartoum fifth in its worldwide list of cities expected to see the highest growth in young entry-level consumers between 2010 and 2025. The Nigerian city of Lagos came first and Tanzania’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, second.

Such estimates come even as Sudan’s $74 billion economy feels the aftershocks of South Sudan’s secession in 2011, which deprived Khartoum of three-quarters of the formerly united country’s oil reserves and led the government to trim subsidies, sparking protests. The economy grew 3.6 percent in 2014, driven by agriculture, services and the mining industry, the government said in July.

Secret Recipe

Mimicking international companies can attract Sudanese who’ve traveled or lived outside the country as well as “global teens” who’ve seen them in U.S. television shows or movies, according to Ilham Mansour, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Khartoum’s School of Management Studies.

Lookalike restaurants "may prove that Sudan’s economy can accommodate investment opportunities much like other countries and has the capacity to adapt to international investment trends," she said in an e-mailed response to questions.

“Both brands are doing very well,” Kevin Hedderwick, chief executive officer of Famous Brands, said of the Steers and Debonairs franchises, without elaborating. The company has been trading in Sudan since 2003, he said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Kafory looks like a U.S. chain “and the chicken is tasty,” said Moustafa, the engineer who’s tried the more famous KFC in six countries, as he joined the four-person queue at the cashier. “But it really needs the Americans’ secret recipe and better coleslaw.”

Yum Brands declined to comment on any lookalike chains. It has no restaurants in Sudan and no plans for them at this time, a spokeswoman said in an e-mailed response to questions.

‘Cultural Reasons’

Not all Sudanese see these brands positively because of attitudes against globalization, alleged Western interference in the country or “cultural reasons,” according to Mansour. President Umar al-Bashir, who seized power in a 1989 coup, widened the country’s implementation of Islamist-inspired laws and for a time hosted groups listed as terrorist organizations by countries including the U.S.

Wael Abu el-Alaa, the owner of Starbox, a bistro in Khartoum’s upscale Riyadh district, has experienced such resistance. In 2013, a lawyer visited the premises -- where an iced coffee sells for about 22 Sudanese pounds -- and said he’d begun legal action because Abu el-Alaa had named his business after Starbucks, which can’t operate in Sudan.

"I was acquitted because the names are different," Starbox’s 36-year-old founder said with a grin. These days headaches for the business, located in a part of the city where Osama bin Laden lived two decades ago, come from another U.S. connection: a local shortage of dollars means it often struggles to import the coffee beans and takeaway cardboard cups crucial for its operations.

A Starbucks spokeswoman said she was looking into "any internal awareness" of the Sudanese outlet. The Seattle-based company has an obligation to protect its brand from infringement, she said.

The U.S. Treasury and Commerce Department announced in February that they were changing federal regulations to let U.S. citizens and companies export to Sudan hardware such as smartphones, satellite phones, computers and supporting software without needing individual export licenses.

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