Daniel Howden: In Nairobi, business is booming in the gleaming new branches of KFC

The city's new plazas are full of South African fast-food outlets copying those in the US

Related Topics

The grand opening of the first KFC restaurant in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, last year drew a serious crowd. It was never on a par with McDonald's 1990 debut in Moscow but there was palpable excitement. The queues outside the fried chicken restaurant in one of the city's mushrooming shopping malls were taken as further evidence of the rise of the country's middle class.

Most of the diners admitted they had been drawn by the “hype” but a year on KFC is still full and has opened several more outlets. The opening was broadly seen as Kenya catching up with the rest of the world, another signpost on the way to middle-income status rather than any cause for health concerns.

People looking for answers to why Africa has gone from hunger crises to mounting obesity without ever passing through a healthy nutrition phase tend to focus on why the continent is different. The same tired “African exceptionalism” that is used to explain poverty levels or civil wars is wheeled out. Some point to cultural differences, wondering whether the heft is associated with wealth and prosperity rather than the Western stereotype of idleness and sloth.

Unusual practices like the forcefeeding of girls in Mauritania or breast ironing in Mali are seized on to draw sweeping conclusions about “traditional beliefs” over body shapes and sizes. A lot of time has been spent by researchers asking men in countries like South Africa and Kenya whether they like big bums or skinny women. The answers, as you would expect on a continent of a billion people, are mixed.

In fact, what the rising obesity rates reveal are consumer habits that broadly follow what's been seen elsewhere in the world. The same factors are creating the fat. Urbanisation is on the increase throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the move from the village to the city is adding weight to the argument.

Africa now has more cities of over one million people than China and a larger collective middle class than India. Convenience foods full of fat and starch are waiting for the new arrivals that can afford them in the cities.

The highest obesity rates broadly follow the GDP per capita, with sub-Saharan Africa's biggest economy South Africa having by far the biggest problem. Other emerging economies like Kenya are following suit, often with exactly the same companies and products. It's no coincidence that South African investors brought KFC back to Kenya (it was there previously in the 1970s briefly).

Nairobi's shiny new plazas as well as its petrol station drive-ins are full of South African fast food outlets, most of them aping US counterparts.

Already creaking public health systems are in no position to deal with an obesity epidemic. Social attitudes to weight will have to shift without much help from governments. If there is a pan-African middle class emerging then it is most visible on satellite television where adverts imploring Mums to feed up their kids have started to give way to those telling people to watch their weight. The message may not be getting through.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Administrator

£14400 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a multi-d...

Recruitment Genius: Service, Maintenance & Installation Engineers - London

£34000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of Energy Consult...

Austen Lloyd: Planning Solicitor - Bristol

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: FIRST CLASS FIRM - A very exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner - Night Shift

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A leading Leicestershire based chilled food ma...

Day In a Page

Read Next

If I were Prime Minister: I'd champion the young and hold a cabinet meeting on top of Ben Nevis

Bear Grylls

i Editor's Letter: The five reasons why I vote

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot