Obesity Was Rising as Ghana Embraced Fast Food. Then Came KFC.

By DIONNE SEARCEY and MATT RICHTEL | NY Times | OCTOBER 2, 2017

ACCRA, Ghana — After finishing high school a decade ago, Daniel Awaitey enrolled in computer courses, dropped out to work in a hotel, then settled into a well-paying job in the booming oil sector here.

He has an apartment, a car, a smartphone and a long-distance girlfriend he met on a dating website. So he had reasons and the means to celebrate his 27th birthday in late July. His boss and co-workers joined him for an evening of laughter and selfies, lingering over dinner at his favorite restaurant: KFC.

Mr. Awaitey first learned about the fried chicken chain on Facebook. The “finger lickin’ good” slogan caught his attention and it has lived up to expectations. “The food is just ——” he said, raising his fingertips to his mouth and smacking his lips. “When you taste it you feel good.”

Ghana, a coastal African country of more than 28 million still etched with pockets of extreme poverty, has enjoyed unprecedented national prosperity in the last decade, buoyed by offshore oil. Though the economy slowed abruptly not long ago, it is rebounding and the signs of new fortune are evident: millions moving to cities for jobs, shopping malls popping up and fast food roaring in to greet people hungry for a contemporary lifestyle.

Chief among the corporate players is KFC, and its parent company, YUM!, which have muscled northward from South Africa — where KFC has about 850 outlets and a powerful brand name — throughout sub-Saharan Africa: to Angola, Tanzania, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and beyond. The company brings the flavors that have made it popular in the West, seasoned with an intangible: the symbolic association of fast food with rich nations.

But KFC’s expansion here comes as obesity and related health problems have been surging. Public health officials see fried chicken, french fries and pizza as spurring and intensifying a global obesity epidemic that has hit hard in Ghana — one of 73 countries where obesity has at least doubled since 1980. In that period, Ghana’s obesity rates have surged more than 650 percent, from less than 2 percent of the population to 13.6 percent, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent research center at the University of Washington.

The causes of obesity are widely acknowledged as complex — involving changing lifestyles, genetics, and, in particular, consumption of processed foods high in salt, sugar and fat.

KFC’s presence in Ghana so far is relatively modest but rapidly growing, and it underscores the way fast food can shape palates, habits and waistlines.

Research shows that people who eat more fast food are more likely to gain weight and become obese, and nutrition experts here express deep concern at the prospect of an increasingly heavy and diabetic population, without the medical resources to address a looming health crisis that some say could rival AIDS.

“You are what you eat,” said Charles Agyemang, a Ghanaian who is now an associate professor at the University of Amsterdam, where he studies obesity and chronic disease. KFC alone, he said, is only one factor in the country’s obesity epidemic, but it represents the embrace of western foods. In Ghana, he said, “eating local foods in some places is frowned upon. People see the European type as civilized.”

“This is having a major impact on obesity and heart disease.”

KFC executives see a major opportunity here to be part of people’s regular routines, a goal they are advancing through a creative marketing campaign and use of social media. When asked if it is unhealthy for people to eat fried chicken often, Kimberly Morgan, a KFC spokeswoman in Plano, Texas, said, “At KFC, we’re proud of our world famous, freshly in-store prepared fried chicken and believe it can be enjoyed as a part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.”

Company representatives said they take health seriously in the region, noting their sponsorship of a youth cricket league in South Africa. The company, they said, has worked to make their menu more diverse and healthier.

“That’s why we provide consumers choice,” said Andrew Havinga, who runs the supply chain for KFC’s Africa division. “We do believe in a healthy, balanced lifestyle.”

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