It’s a busy Friday evening at Nairobi’s Carnivore Restaurant, one of the city’s oldest and best-known steakhouses. Chicken, beef and lamb dishes have long dominated demand here, over the more exotic crocodile, camel and ostrich meat also on the menu. Now, though, as the waiters in multicolored uniforms rush between tables, many of the orders from customers include an unlikely competitor to those traditional favorites: the humble rabbit.
Just a decade ago, no restaurant in Kenya had rabbit meat on its menu. Rabbits were reared primarily as pets, and their meat was viewed as the poor man’s food, says George Barasa, a Nairobi-based nutrition consultant. But a rising demand for meat, decreasing sizes of land holdings for farmers, climate change–induced shortages in fodder for cattle and a health-driven turn away from red meat are simultaneously combining to spark a Kenyan dietary shift testing decades-old stereotypes.
The country’s only rabbit abattoir, run by the Rabbit Breeders Association of Kenya (RABAK) in Thika, a town 29 miles north of Nairobi, processed 200 kilograms of meat a week until 2016, but now churns out between 500 kg and 1,000 kg, says Festus Waiguru, who works as a slaughterman at RABAK. That increased demand from restaurants, hotels and shops has allowed the abattoir to raise its price for 1 kg of meat from 450 Kenyan shillings ($4.50) to 500 Kenyan shillings ($5).
The meat is tasty, and I find it soft.
Samson Karauri, Thika-based businessman
The RABAK-produced meat isn’t enough, though. So restaurants are turning to other sources too, to minimize the risk of losing out in the race to procure meat from the abattoir. Carnivore Restaurant used to buy 10 kg of meat a day from the abattoir till 2017, but now sources its rabbit directly from farmers, says Carnivore chef Gerson Achila. The restaurant’s customers today consume 20 kg of rabbit meat daily. And restaurants that have always sold lean meat are making the rabbit a central part of their offering. Customers at White Meat restaurant in Thika, which added rabbit to its menu in 2013, now consume 10 kg of the meat each day, on average, says Susan Wangechi, a chef there.
“The meat is tasty, and I find it soft,” says Samson Karauri, a Thika-based businessman who is a regular visitor to White Meat restaurant, where he typically orders rabbit meat with ugali, a Kenyan corn cake.
Battling taboos isn’t easy, and they still persist against both rearing and consuming the rabbit. Kenya has traditionally been an agrarian and pastoral society, and livestock has served a combination of economic, nutritional and cultural roles. It’s been used for barter, farm work, milk, eggs, its fur, leather and meat, and as dowry gifts during weddings. The small rabbit couldn’t serve any of these purposes effectively. Traditional families are still reluctant to serve rabbit meat to guests, worried that may be seen as a sign of disrespect or economic desperation, says Barasa.
For the pastoralist Maasai tribe, small in population — just 2 percent of Kenya’s 48 million citizens belong to the community — but culturally influential, the taboo involved with killing rabbits for meat instead of sheep, goats or cows is even stronger. Eating the small rabbit is a sign of weakness.
But demographic and economic pressures — and a growing health awareness — are battering against those stereotypes, increasingly bestowing cultural acceptance to what was socially a no-go.
Kenya’s population has increased by more than 60 percent over the past two decades — from 29 million in 1998 to 48 million in 2016, according to the World Bank. That population pressure has led to smaller land holdings, and lower potential to rear and manage large cattle. In addition, the country, like many others, has witnessed increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and frequent droughts, reducing capabilities to feed cattle. At the same time, though, the increasing population has led to a sharp growth in demand for meat. The answer to these challenges? The rabbit.
Compared to cattle, rabbits feed less, so they’re less expensive to maintain, says RABAK chairman Peter Waiganjo. They also reproduce notoriously fast, and reach a point where they can be eaten quicker than animals reared traditionally for meat in Kenya. “Rabbits are prolific and achieve slaughter weight in three months, giving them an advantage over other small ruminants like sheep and goats,” says Waiganjo. This has made breeding rabbits lucrative — the increased demand and prices of the meat at the abattoir also translate into better earnings for farmers who rear the animals, he adds.
In the cities, there’s also growing concern over lifestyle diseases — already the second-biggest killers in Kenya after HIV/AIDS, according to the World Health Organization — suggests Barasa, the nutritionist. White meat is increasingly sought after, he says. “Growing awareness about the link between dietary habits and health has contributed to the high demand [for rabbit meat],” says Barasa.
Kenyan tastes are beginning to adjust to — and even relish — rabbit meat. Franklin Pamba, a regular customer at Carnivore Restaurant, says it’s the hot, sizzling rabbit steaks the joint serves that bring him and his family back each time. The restaurant, says Achila, the chef, has an expert who scrutinizes the meat it buys from farmers and declares whether it’s fit to be used — Carnivore Restaurant has a license to slaughter rabbits. At White Meat restaurant, customers pay 650 Kenyan shillings ($6.50) for a kilogram of rabbit meat, a princely sum in a country with a per capita income of less than $4 a day. Customers there typically eat rabbit meat with bananas, chips or ugali, says Wangechi, the White Meat chef.
The demand for rabbit meat is rising so fast, says Waiganjo, that the supply is struggling to keep up. The abattoir, he says, has the capacity to slaughter up to 2,000 rabbits a day, but the supply of animals is such that it slaughters only once a week. But he expects that to change — as the economic opportunity overtakes the cultural stereotype. RABAK is already holding sensitization campaigns for farmers.
Among consumers, the cracks in the taboo against rabbit meat are already showing, as wealthier Kenyans pick the animal at expensive restaurants. It’s no longer a rabbit hole only the poor and desperate go down.
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