Obesity in Africa

August 14, 2016

According to a pentagenarian bloke I spoke to recently, two decades ago, one could hardly see a fat woman in Africa’s rural areas and he told that being fat was associated with wealth.Having listened to him carefully, it was clear that due to lack of information, that generation of Africans didn’t know that being fat was not only uncool but also a recipe for disaster.Myself, I dread being fat and whenever I come across anyone with such a challenge, i get more energised to work hard and remain fit. I often hear calls for fast food tax when there’s discussion of Africa’s growing obesity problem. The idea behind such a tax is that it would enable governments to subsidise healthy foods so that they’re more affordable, and make unhealthy foods comparatively expensive so people buy less of them.But I doubt if it can work.I don’t think the cost is really the most powerful determinant of what food products people buy.On my arguments, i will consider the likely effects of a junk food tax. Researchers in South Africa claimed that a 15% tax on a can of soft drink would be a sufficient deterrent to purchasing it.It’s easy to visualise this as someone approaches the refrigerator in a convenience store in Durban wanting to buy a drink and ready to make a decision based on taste and cost. If a soft drink is more expensive than water, it becomes less attractive and South Africa could see a change in buying behaviour and the attendant reduction in the consumption of obesity promoting products.South Africa’s junk food tax idea falls over in other situations where food choices are made, when factors other than price come into play.

Family dinner options, for instance, are rarely arrayed together in one location for a simple price comparison.In lower-income areas like Soweto, where obesity is disproportionately more common, main roads are lined with takeaway food outlets and the only greengrocer may not have a car park let alone a drive-through service. In Kenya, part of the attraction of takeaway food is that it provides instant satisfaction while demanding little in the way of cooking skills or nutritional knowledge.Dinner options that require food preparation may be out of the question for people living in housing with inadequate cooking and food storage facilities. So, although one can prepare a healthy meal for total of $2 per person, in disadvantaged communities this might not compare favourably with the $5 offered by various takeaway chains, even if the meals were taxed until they became $10.And regardless of the price, it may be hard to sell healthy meal to someone accustomed to takeaway’s addictively sweet and salty and fatty flavours, low in vegetables and high in melt-in-the-mouth starches.When people claim that healthy food is expensive, they are sometimes simply observing that processed foods labelled diet are priced higher, or that high-energy junk foods supply more unneeded calories. Both claims are true, but trivial.But sometimes they are actually pointing out, correctly, that the real cost of healthy meal is more than that, unlike the takeaway alternative, home cooked dinner cost nearly an hour of time to prepare. An hour that many Africans might not be inclined to spare if they were tired and walk to and from a hard low-income job and trying to feed fractious children as soon as possible.

And that home-cooked meal required a number of different skills and resources that many Africans might take for granted, such as cooking ability and a functional kitchen. And that it would cost more if one had to fund the start-up cost of all the ingredients instead of just using and costing smaller amounts of items one already had.From my experience in Africa, home meal is very nutritious. Unlike the takeaway meal which am allergic to and dread them, home meals provides the full spectrum of essential vitamins and minerals, as well as beneficial fibre and health-protective plant substances. Fast food meals, on the other hand, typically overfeed, with one meal providing over half of a day’s requirement for starch, as well as less protein and more fat.Better food labelling might help African consumers realise this. But labelling also works best when options are equally convenient and equally available, sitting side by side for comparison on the supermarket shelf or a food outlet’s menu. When this is not the case, labelling loses much of its power to influence food choices. Just as price manipulation strategies do.Efforts to combat obesity in Africa need to look beyond simple pricing strategies, to the underlying knowledge and skills that influence food choices. Just as physical activity is now compulsory at school, basic cooking should be an integral part of the personal development and life skills curriculum for all kids.And rather than merely requiring a sink and food preparation area as they do now, building codes need to be updated so that adequate cooking facilities are mandatory in all dwellings. An emphasis on improving skills means that rather than just punishing poor food choices, there’s need to equip people to make better ones, every day at home, not just in the convenience stores.

Contador Harrison