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ECONOMY: Growing Obesity in Africa Bad for Worker Productivity

Miriam Mannak

CAPE TOWN, Sep 29 2010 (IPS) - Obesity is no longer a problem confined to wealthy nations. In their developing counterparts in Africa, an increasing number of people can be categorised as obese. According to researchers this trend could be detrimental to countries’ already fragile economies.

Dr. Segametsi Maruapula: African people are eating more hamburgers, hot dogs, savoury snacks and convenience foods. Credit: Miriam Mannak/IPS

Dr. Segametsi Maruapula: African people are eating more hamburgers, hot dogs, savoury snacks and convenience foods. Credit: Miriam Mannak/IPS

Dr. Zandile Mchiza, researcher at South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), has found that both under-nutrition and over-nutrition are evident in poor African communities and that these phenomena are inter- related. Her research is directed at informing policies to address the growing problem of obesity in Africa.

“Obesity may result in all sorts of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, heart problems and various types of cancer. This can have various implications for countries’ economies,” explains Mchiza.

Mchiza headed a recent research project that investigated the scope of Africa’s obesity problem. The statutory HSRC specialises in humanities and social sciences research with Africa as its focus.

“An obese farm worker won’t be as productive as someone with a healthy weight level. Such a person won’t be able to walk long distances or to stand in one place for a long period of time while performing tasks. Loss of productivity due to obesity may therefore hamper a country’s economy,” according to Mchiza.

Obesity may also lead to absenteeism, she adds: “If you are obese, you will probably be going to the doctor more often compared to healthy people, especially if you suffer from an obesity-related illness. This again is detrimental to productivity and will affect the economy if occurring on a wide scale.”

Determining whether someone is obese or overweight can be done using the body mass index (BMI), which requires dividing a person’s weight in kilogrammes by their height in square metres. It is generally understood that a BMI over 25 kg per square metres is defined as overweight and a BMI of over 30 kg/sq m as obese.

A high prevalence of obesity can put extra pressure on Africa’s already overburdened public health care systems, Mchiza stresses. Many African nations struggle with a shortage of nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals, as well as a lack of money for hospitals and clinics.

“If more people utilise the already overloaded public health care system because of obesity-related problems, it may force the government to spend more on the treatment of preventable and unnecessary diseases. This could lead to less money being available for housing, education and other priorities,” Mchiza notes.

The exact number of obese Africans is unknown, as not much research has been conducted on the topic.

“Most information that is available deals with the situation in South Africa. The reason for this is the quality of the country’s communication and technology infrastructure and how various government departments are organised.

“This is not the case in most other countries, which makes it difficult to get information on obesity,” Mchiza points out. Her research, which was conducted in 2008 and 2009, mainly entailed reviewing the available demographic health surveys in African states published between 2003 and 2007.

Mchiza discovered that obesity is most common among women and teenage girls. “They are much more tolerant of being obese, as large bodies are associated with beauty and status in many African cultures,” she explains.

Analysing the available data, Egypt is the African country with the most significant obesity problem as 35.7 percent of adult women are obese. The land of the Pharaohs is followed by South Africa (27.4 percent), Swaziland (23.1 percent), Mauritania (16,4 percent), Lesotho (16.1 percent) and Namibia (11.7 percent).

Ghana (9.3 percent), Republic of Congo (7.5 percent) and Zimbabwe (7.2 percent) have an emerging obesity problem.

Rising obesity levels has partially to do with changing lifestyle patterns due to the influence of globalising Western culture, such as choosing convenience and fast food over traditional dishes. Price is also an important factor.

“A plate of chips is often cheaper than a balanced meal,” Mchiza says. “Africans have shifted away from more traditional diets to convenience and fast food.”

One of the countries where obesity is a problem that is not on Mchiza’s list is Botswana. According to its very first research project, which was conducted by the University of Botswana, approximately 20.3 percent of the country’s adolescents between the ages of 11 and 19 are obese or overweight.

“Approximately 21.5 percent of the students that we classified as obese or overweight were female,” says Dr. Segametsi Maruapula, lecturer at the university’s department of home economics education and head of the survey. “A little over 18 percent were male.”

The food industry is partially responsible for Botswana’s obesity problem, Maruapula explains: “People nowadays eat more refined foods that are high in fat and sugar. We are not just talking about fast food such as hamburgers and hotdogs but also about savoury snacks and other convenience foods.”

“Half of the youngsters we interviewed told us they are eating fast food on a regular basis. About 26 percent said they were eating out once a day; 18 percent were eating out once a week. The problem with fast food and convenience foods is that they are highly accessible, promoted heavily and are very cheap.”

Maruapula argues that the fast food industry should take responsibility for overweight and obesity in the workforce: “The industry needs to work closer with healthcare professionals and listen to them regarding how they can make their products healthier,” she suggests.

“Health is not just a task for healthcare workers. It is also the responsibility of the food industry.”

Mchiza recognises the role of fast food in Africa’s obesity problem but she does not regards the fast food industry as the main culprit: “It is the consumer who makes the choice. Companies such as MacDonald’s have come up with healthier products, yet many people seem to prefer fatty products.”

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