Kenya is seeing unprecedented growth in the number of international fast food chains opening up outlets here.
In the course of a few years, the local restaurant scene has radically changed as global fast food actors, confronted with the backlash from increasingly health-conscious populations in their saturated home markets, move to take advantage of opportunities offered by population growth and rising middle-class consumption in Africa and Asia’s emerging markets.
From a handful of early entrants such as South African food chains Steers and Nandos, hundreds of global franchises and company-owned food outlets now dot busy avenues, highways, and popular shopping centres. They include the US-based Kentucky Fried Chicken, Cold Stone Creamery, Subway, Pizza Hut, Planet Yoghurt, Domino’s Pizza, Burger King, and the Japanese-owned Teriyaki.
If recent announcements on the anticipated entry of US-burger chains Hardees, McDonalds, and expansion of KFC to other regions in Kenya tell us anything, it is that this trend is here to stay.
Related to this are developments in the Kenyan food and beverage sector that have resulted in the explosive growth of imported, highly processed food products with undisclosed or unregulated ingredients in retail shops and supermarket.
Government and mainstream media would have believe that all this signals economic growth, a positive business climate, growing investor confidence, more jobs and so on.
However, Kenya’s rising fast food culture poses serious, long-term public health impacts that arguably overshadow any rationale of economic benefit, and call for immediate action.
There is a growing body of evidence from the World Health Organisation and other leading health agencies connecting saturated fats, industrial trans fats, free sugars, sodium, mutagens and carcinogens in highly processed foods to the rising burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in developing countries.
Kenya is no exception. According to the Ministry of Health, the top four NCDs (cancers, diabetes, chronic cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases) are at an all-time high and account for 2 out of every 5 deaths annually.
Reported increases in childhood diabetes and childhood obesity across Kenya suggest that NCDs can no longer be considered a problem of old age. With business such as this continuing as usual, NCDs could account for 3 out of every 5 deaths by 2030, representing health care costs and productivity losses that far outweigh any economic gains.
The development of the Kenya National Strategy on the Prevention and Control of NCDs (2015- 2020) and the inaugural STEPwise Survey for NCD Risk Factors are steps in the right policy direction, as are a range of official commitments and ongoing efforts by the Ministry of Health and county governments to expand access to NCD awareness, prevention, and treatment services.
However, the embrace of global fast food actors by the Kenyan market is a key area where economic growth, trade, and investment policies are at odds with the government’s responsibility to promote and protect the health and wellbeing of Kenyans by reducing their exposure to harmful sources of preventable chronic diseases.
The WHO report on Globalisation, Diets, and Non-communicable Diseases points to three ways the government can mitigate the public health harm from the rapidly expanding fast food industry.
One way is through subsidies and other enabling policies that support local Kenyan producers to grow, distribute and sell fresh, healthy food options locally and help boost their competitiveness against much-better resourced, global fast food chains.
Alongside this, the government should roll out co-ordinated public education initiatives enlisting key state agencies, civil society, the private sector, schools, religious, and cultural institutions to increase awareness of the harmful effects of fast food and raise local demand for healthier local food options.
Perhaps more pressingly, Kenya must develop comprehensive national food safety and nutritional quality standards and regulations deploying a combination of voluntary and involuntary measures such as penalties for use of harmful ingredients, greater point-of-sale transparency through accurate labelling in line with the Codex Alimentarius Guidelines, as well as stringent measures to protect local consumers from unethical marketing practices that deceive the public about the safety and nutritional value of fast and processed foods.
Without serious efforts to address the impact of foreign trade and investment on Kenya’s local food landscape, any gains in the national NCD response will be short-lived or symbolic at best.
It is time to stand up and challenge unexamined open trade policies and weak food safety regulations that are mortgaging our nation’s health and our children’s futures under the guise of foreign direct investment.
Gladys Onyango is currently doing a masters degree in International Development at the University of California, Berkeley.