On a recent trip to Nairobi I noticed an increasing number of American fast food options were now available. The Hub in Karen, Nairobi is much like many malls in the U.S.A. There was Cold Stone Creamery, KFC, Pizza Hut, Subway and Burger King (BK).
What is the Kenyan Whopper like you ask…exactly like the Whopper in anytown, USA. The one difference I noted was the heightened level of unbridled joy and excitement of people eating at Burger King.
Sure kids in the USA might be excited to have Burger King instead of whatever is on offer from the home fridge…but these Kenyan kids were on a Disneyland at Christmas level of excitement. There is no drive-thru option and I did not see anyone take their order to go. Customers were seated in the relatively large dining area that had a covered outdoor patio and playground.
Burger King branding is flawless, same brightly coloured plastic coated beach seats as any other Burger King I have ever been in. I shared the Kenyan Burger King dining experience with my nephews, age 1 and 5, they each left with a BK paper crown on their head. The 5-year-old was far more excited about the playground than the food.
I got to thinking about the unbridled excitement for American fast food that is quickly becoming a part of Urban African life.
Africa’s rapidly expanding middle class is increasingly spending money on American brand or American inspired fast food options high in fats and sugars. I did note that the soda cup and French fry box were the size you would find in a kid’s meal in the USA. There are no upsize options yet. The Whopper meal I had with kid size fries and a kid size vanilla shake has significantly fewer calories than the average Whopper meal in the states with much larger soda cups and fries’ containers. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for fast food consumption among urban dwelling Africans is already having an impact on rates of obesity.
The Malabo Montpellier Panel (MMP), a team of agriculture experts working in Africa, recently reported that processed foods account for 70-80% of the middle class’s food budget. In comparison, rural dwellers eating an indigenous diet eat no processed foods all or most of the year. The nutrition transition of African nations with urban and rural dwellers presents a unique challenge for public health policy planning. Undernutrition and famine are still very real concerns. However, we must also be forward thinking in order to stave off the looming obesity epidemic in urban areas.
Africa has come late to the rising global obesity epidemic. However, the rapidly increasing appetite and enthusiasm for fast food consumption is of great concern for interested public health professionals. Eating indigenous food is frowned upon in certain places and fast food consumption has become a status symbol for prosperous middle and upper class people.
In Ghana, one of the most developed nations in Africa, obesity rates have grown more than 650% since 1980. (Malabo Montpellier Panel Report, 2017)
In the most developed regions we are beginning to observe lower life expectancy for children than that of their parents, childhood obesity is a substantial contributor to the lowering of life expectancy in developed regions. As African urban dwellers, now is the time to curb the enthusiasm for fast food. We must preserve and pass on our indigenous diets of unprocessed locally sourced whole food. Eating a Whopper once or twice a year is a fun excursion, but let us keep it an infrequent festive occasion and not make it a regular eating habit.
Annah K. Amani M.P.H., Ph.D. is the Dean, Digital School of Open, Distance and E-learning at Kampala International University