When I heard about multinational fast food companies expanding throughout Africa, I was ready to protest. Much like the rest of the world, obesity is on the rise in Africa and, as a registered dietitian who has seen the negative contributions of fast food on the health of the American people, I shuddered at the thought of similar health effects creeping across the continent. Unfortunately for me, I was a lonely picketer. When a hamburger chain opened its doors in southern Africa, the decision makers showed their enthusiasm by standing for hours in a line that extended for blocks.
Why is fast food becoming popular in Africa?
Due to rapid urbanization, Africa has been termed “the next frontier.” Beyond the sheer intrigue and curiosity of western food, those that waited in line were reflective of a new workforce rising and the consequent increase in disposable income. As I scanned through social media images of the new restaurant, I noticed large numbers of women. Two decades ago, many of them would have been stay-at-home mothers. However, urbanization has encouraged them to give up traditional care-giving roles for improved income opportunities. Their employment translates into decreased meal preparation time and, if no help is available, fast food becomes the best option for quick, cheap, convenient meals. In some instances, this ability to regularly purchase fast food is a status envied by neighbors — an inequitable trade-off for time spent away from family.
So what’s a continent to do?
I would be amiss if I did not recognize some of the economic opportunities the fast food industry brings. Although low, it provides wages for unskilled laborers who would otherwise be unemployed. For nations dependent on tourism, it indirectly promotes a surge due to recognizable brands readily available to serve tourists. Finally, for local governments, it is a source of tax revenue.
The benefits of these gains can only be substantiated with time. As a dietitian I am a proponent of prevention; If given the opportunity to sit with executives from the fast food industry and the politicians that develop business regulations, I would encourage them to translate lessons learned from the western experience into positive menu development and health promotion initiatives for Africa.
I would urge them to:
1. Offer good tasting, healthier alternatives at a reasonable cost.
2. Incentivize smaller portions through reduced pricing.
3. Avoid promotion of super-sized meals.
4. Feature both healthy alternatives and smaller serving sizes prominently on the menu.
5. Empower customers to make healthier choices by making nutrition information readily available and accessible. Translate this information into relatable concepts and educate people on the consequences of dietary excesses.
6. Procure a percentage of food commodities from local small scale farmers.
7. Promote health and recreation by sponsoring non-promotional preventive health screenings and sporting events.
8. Limit the distribution of fast food restaurants in any square-mile radius, especially in the low-income, high-density areas.
9. Avoid targeted advertising directed toward children.
At the end of the day, personal responsibility has to play a role. If the education is given and healthy alternatives are offered at a reasonable price, the ultimate responsibility has to be with each individual. I find myself torn. Fast food is a by-product of much-needed industrialization, and yet its impact may contribute to a reversal of the very gains we are trying to achieve. If Africa follows along the path of the west, her workforce and future generations will be burdened with obesity related chronic diseases. With the distressed, poorly funded health care systems currently in place, how will the continent cope?