Olutobi Akingbade

The rise in obesity on the continent has been predominantly attributed to rapid urbanisation and changes in people’s lifestyles. Despite this, food insecurity abounds on the African continent with over 200 million undernourished people living alongside those who are at high risk of non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, due to obesity. But who is at fault for obesity on the continent? Consumers? Advertisers? The so called “Big Food” companies, otherwise known as large commercial entities that dominate the food and drink environment?

There has been a shocking rise in obesity levels in urban Africa over the past two decades according to a continent wide study done by the African Population and Health Research Centre, an international non-profit, non-governmental organisation that carries out policy-relevant research on population, health and education issues facing sub-Saharan Africa. But undernourishment still plagues many on the continent. Food fortification is being used as one way to tackle this scourge.

In simple terms, people need both macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to grow and be healthy. Food fortification is the practice of intentionally increasing the content of essential vitamins and minerals in food, in order to improve the nutritional quality of the food and provide a public health benefit with minimal risk to health. This is what many large food manufacturers have started to do across the African continent. In South Africa, for instance, maize meal and wheat flour was put through a fortification programme in the early 2000s because these foods are widely consumed, producers understood that adding nutrients to these products would help with delivering necessary vitamins and minerals to the majority of the population.

But against this backdrop, can we in 2019 say that significant gains have been recorded in the nutrition and bodily health of Africans?

While there are documented efforts by prominent Big Food companies on the continent to enhance the micronutrient fortification of some of their products to address micronutrient deficiencies such as iron or vitamin A deficiency, there remains the need to consistently and systematically examine the fortification exercise to ensure that this is not just motion without measurable ways of ensuring there are improvements brought about by the nutrient profile or quality of the fortified products. This becomes important drawing on Africa’s challenges of hunger and malnutrition alongside micronutrient deficiencies.

Big Food on the African continent has become commonplace as much of the global market growth over the past decade comes from the developing world. Research indicates that the ready-to-eat market is growing considerably on the continent and is expected to rise to an estimated value of USD 219,693.73 million by 2026, due to factors such as rapid urbanisation.

Big Food companies are leveraging on the prevalence of non-communicable diseases and nutritional issues in Africa to enhance their market power and position on the continent. In this context, African leaders cannot be absent. They must chart a workable course that will increase the nutritional profile of the diets consumed in many African homes.

African states differ in their approach to diet and nutritional concerns of their population, however what remains a concern is the ways that global food corporations have circumvented policies which are meant to regulate their operational activities. There are Big Food corporations that have often been reported to attack legitimate scientific efforts meant to understand the shifts in the dynamics of food systems while also influencing political agenda across African nations. This is but one reason why there must be a joint effort to mitigate the negative impact created by ultra-processed food items.

Furthermore, the need for African leaders to proffer a united front to salvage the nutritional crisis engulfing the continent becomes more obvious when the marketing style of a number of these Big Food corporations are closely examined.

The marketing of ultra-processed products with ambiguous claims of optimal nutrition and health benefits by most Big Food companies has been critiqued by public health officials and scientists as the nutrient-content claims on the labels of these products isolate and focus attention on single components while neglecting the overall nutrient profile or quality of the products. Such basic nutrient claims on products, even without high-level emphasis by the Big Food company producing it, come at the expense of other ways of understanding food and nutritional quality and communicate imbalanced nutritional information among consumers thereby making them assume that the product is healthy. Referred to by Popkin (2017) as packaged and processed ‘ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat food’, these products are commercially packaged and made attractive to an African continent that grapples with malnutrition, and is being marketed, through the mass media with targeted efforts made through digital media.

While Big Food companies proffer reasons such as job creation and provision of affordable and available foods as rationale for their continued expansion in most countries across Africa and the global south, health concerns arising from the continuous rise in consumption of ultra-processed products by these companies are capable of truncating the development roadmap of the continent and consequently cause African states to fall short of actualising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

With no less than 200 million people on the continent being under-nourished, it becomes imperative to re-evaluate the approaches used to ascertain the nutritional quality of Big Food products consumed by the African populace and thereby provide updated systemic nutritional surveillance procedures to assess the exact shortfall of nutrients in dietary supply across the continent.