Sizing Up: Growing Fast Food Consumption in Urban Africa

In the 11th edition of Talking Urban Futures in Africa, James Boafo joins Mvemba Phezo Dizolele and Emmy Simmons to discuss the growing consumption of fast food in African cities, with a focus on urban Ghana. They consider the health, cultural, and economic implications of the emerging sector and point to the implications of a globalized market. James also describes the varying experiences of poor and rich urban fast food consumers and calls on both U.S. and African policymakers to increase public awareness around the issue.

  • James Boafo is a lecturer in Geography and Sustainable Development at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana.

The discussion, moderated by Mvemba Dizolele and Emmy Simmons, has been edited for purposes of brevity and clarity.

MD: Welcome James. What is the relationship between urbanization, fast food, and food security in Africa?

JB: Urbanization is defined as the share of the urban population in relation to the total population of a country. In Ghana, for instance, more than half of the population now lives in urban areas. These are people who have moved from rural areas to seek jobs, so they have no time to cook since they're busy working.

When people become so busy that they have no time to prepare their own food, since preparing the local food takes time, then it is believed that fast food can be used as a substitute to increase or improve food security in these urban areas. But unfortunately, that is not the case. Fast food, in fact, can't lead to food security, especially when we define food security as having both economic and physical access to good food or nutritious food. So in Ghana, the consumption of fast food is increasing due to locally branded and internationally branded fast food establishments like KFC or McDonald's. This is largely consumed by middle- and high-income earners who have enough disposable income to spend on an emerging lifestyle, like fast food. Poor urban dwellers, however, are not able to consume fast food because it is very expensive. So, my argument is that fast food does not lead to food security among the urban poor. Only those who are already food secure can afford fast food.

ES: Obviously somebody has to work in the fast food enterprise—do the dishes, clean up things and so forth. Do you see this emerging sector actually providing income opportunities for both poor urban people as well as rural producers?

JB: The restaurant sector is one of fastest growing sectors in Ghana. So yes, fast food restaurants do give opportunities to the local markets, like chicken producers, cheese producers, and many others. However, the culture of Ghana has always been that we import almost everything. With this, local markets cannot produce enough to meet the demand of fast food restaurants, therefore, they still rely on imported raw materials. This includes chicken, rice, tomato paste, flour, cheese, and other ingredients.

This trend is also creating jobs in Ghana. A lot of people are employed as cooks and distributors, and we have people who ride motors to distribute food to people. They're creating a lot of opportunities for the market. So, it is up to us Ghanaians to seize those opportunities created by fast food restaurants in Ghana.

ES: What is the distinction between international and local fast food brands? Is there another emerging market in non-internationally branded fast food?

JB: Yes, there are. Due to the success of internationally branded fast food in Ghana, some local restaurants are trying to mimic these restaurants. We have some local fast food named Pizzaman, or Chickenman. While they are not internationally branded, these local fast food restaurants produce the same food as internationally branded fast foods and are competing with them for both consumers and markets.

MD: This fast food expansion in Africa presents certain challenges for the government. How do or how can African national and municipal government address some of these concerns?

JB: Before I answer that question, I'll talk about the health implications, as that is a major concern. Many studies have established the link between increasing consumption of energy-dense and fatty food and inactive lifestyles to the prevalence of non-communicable diseases like hypertension, diabetes and more. There is increasing diabetes and obesity, hypertension, and diet-related diseases in urban areas in Ghana. One study found that almost 48 percent of Ghanaian adults have hypertension, and this is the number one killer in Ghana. I continue to anticipate that these diseases are found mainly among richer people. But this is likely to change in the future as prices of fast food decrease due to competition, ultimately increasing consumption amongst the poorer population. When that happens, there will be a prevalence of noncommunicable diseases among the poorer population too.

For our leaders, I think some form of public education on televisions, radio, universities, and colleges about the health implications of consuming fast food is needed. Perhaps they can also mount pressure on fast food restaurants to provide healthier options. In our case, there are no healthy options, unlike in a developed country, where you have access to grilled chicken instead of fried chicken, you have salads, you have side dishes like green beans and corn. This would mean that when I walk into a fast food restaurant, it us up to me to eat something healthier or unhealthy. There should be some kind of pressure, some kind of advocacy, some kind of education for people to understand the health implications of what they're consuming.

ES: How do you link the question of educating consumers about healthier diets to the argument that people are not going to fast food restaurants in order to get food that they like the taste of, but food that provides them some cultural superiority or social status?

JB: The government can collaborate with civil society groups or NGOs to launch an education on television, radio, in our colleges and universities. And of course, it'll not be a direct target on fast food restaurants, but perhaps a campaign on adopting a healthier lifestyle. So, what kind of food should I eat? This initiative would draw people's attention to the fact that the food they eat is unhealthy. Because, at the moment, we don't have any advocacy or informative measures, leaving it up to the consumer to decide what food to eat. And, of course, eating fast food is associated with identifying yourself with Western culture or some form of social status, which is a major pull factor for African consumers. So that kind of education, be it sponsored by governments, civil society groups, or NGOs, is definitely a must.

MD: James, to that point, I wanted to know from your estimate, what is the state of local fast food? As a kid growing up in Africa, we all went to the mama who sells beignets. So on the entire spectrum of “fast food,” what is the status of these shops? Because that's an important segment of fast food that locals can afford.

JB: They are also expanding alongside the international ones. And as I said, some of them are trying to mimic the international ones by producing the same kind of tastes or foods, so that consumers will not be able to differentiate between what is local and what is not. For me, if I want to buy a pizza and I don't have money to buy it from, say, McDonald's, I can go to locally made pizza for a more affordable option that is made from local materials and ingredients. There are a lot of them all across the cities and particularly near university campuses.

MD: Have you noticed any difference between fast food intake in Anglophone and Francophone countries?

JB: Well, for now I have only done work in Ghana. Frankly, I have not read any article from any Francophone country discussing their experience. But I do think that it'd be almost the same culture there, because it's just a revolution across many African countries. So I think Francophone Africa is going through same experience as Anglophone Africa when it comes to fast food.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is a senior fellow and director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Emmy Simmons is a non-resident senior adviser with the CSIS Global Food Security Program.

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Emmy Simmons
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Global Food and Water Security Program