Ideas & Debate

Fast-food boom in Kenya double-edged sword


Cheeseburger with fries and icy soft drink. Researchers link fast-food to incidence of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes. Photo/FILE


  • Entry of multinationals in the industry good for growth, but long term health risks may outweigh gains.

The fast-food revolution has made its debut in Kenya. Few well-known chains dot major streets in key cities, eyeing the rising free spend among the growing middle class.

Like the name implies, the fast-food industry is built around a model of convenience. Better than that, they aim to deliver this convenience at rock bottom prices.

Relatively speaking, the cheaper price impact has yet be realised, in Kenya. Fast-food is still priced beyond the reach of many ordinary Kenyans, unlike in other parts of the world, where it is actually cheaper than a meal prepared at home. This is bound to change as the industry grows.

The main distinction between fast-food businesses and other kinds of catering enterprises essentially lies in their marketing and promotion. Fast-food outlets basically market their brands and not so much the underlying menu.

As opposed to traditional restaurant businesses, fast-food businesses heavily advertise in mass and other media and hold their brands in high esteem charging astronomical sums as royalties and licensing fees to fly their flag.

It is this kind of spectacle that entices people into the world of fast-food, if only to associate with a larger than life brand, especially the young and impressionable.

They come in different forms — coffee houses, pizza stops, chicken and hamburger outlets.

Today, the fast-food industry is arguably one of the fastest growing sector in the globe, especially in the emerging markets.

As they begin a speedy entrance into our market, things stand to change. This is because the fast-food industry bears the uncanny ability to become entrenched in every facet of our lives, gradually changing life as we know it and in no time to become a way of life.

Those, however, who have had the opportunity to read about the effect of fast-food on human health, may have found that it has been linked to a myriad of health issues, top of the list being obesity.

Research into the content of food in fast-foods outlets shows unnerving quantities of fat and sugar.

These two ingredients have been linked to the rise in cases of obesity. Research has further blamed obesity for life threatening yet preventable illnesses such as heart diseases and diabetes.

The rise in the intake of fast-food is not the only reason behind obesity but there is our ever increasing sedentary lifestyle that helps it along — hence the term ‘lifestyle diseases’.

Over the past decade, in places such as the US and South America, obesity and obesity related complications have reached levels that can only be defined as an epidemic. And that is exactly how they are referring to the situation.

In a controversial film titled Super-Size Me inspired by two American citizens who went on to sue fast-food giant McDonalds, a film producer decided to conduct a risky experiment where he was the main subject of the experiment.

It entailed eating nothing but food from McDonalds for 30 days. His aim was to disapprove claims by McDonalds in the legal battle that their food was in no way linked to the health complications they were suffering.

Within the 30 days, the subject underwent radical change in body weight and developed some ailments that could only be attributed to his McDonalds’ diet.

He not only gained weight rapidly but also reported feeling depressed, tired, moody, lethargic and suffering insomnia. Tests also showed that internally his health was failing. The film portrayed frame by frame the short term effects that fast-foods have on the human body.

And so, as fast-food chains move into Kenya, the discussion of health in light of the growing fast-food industry becomes an important one to have.

There is a need to think ahead about the price other parts of the world have paid due to the shift to junk foods from more organic and healthier food choices.

If we were to fall into the same trap and end up with a demographic situation where obesity plagues the majority, healthcare needs and costs would escalate. So would healthcare insurance premiums. Lower quality of life and indeed shorter life expectancy would be inevitable.

To have some of the major global players coming to Kenya as they already are, is a definite plus on the economic growth chart in terms of job creation, level of business activity, impact to the marketing industry and the effect on a long list of related businesses.

Because most, if not all, the fast food chains are multinationals,  there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that their contribution to tax revenue will be phenomenal with regulated reporting.

We talk of regulated reporting because for a while now, some multinational fast-food chains have made headlines for their tack in tax avoidance that deny host countries much needed revenue.

Not too long ago, the Kenya Revenue Authority also caught up with other multinationals that have cleverly avoided paying taxes in Kenya.

With financial reporting checks and balances in place, the industry stands to transform our economy positively.

But without health checks and balances, the same industry stands to transform our minds and bodies very negatively. The social and human cost could very well outweigh the national revenue benefits.

Confectionery, alcohol and other beverages as well as tobacco companies have long borne the brunt of strict rules about labelling their products, not marketing to children and a whole host of food and health issues within which they must abide.

But the same is not the case with fast-food sold from outlets. There is no strict requirement to label for content what is not canned or bottled and it is not disallowed for marketing to children yet they have the same capacity to impact human health as those other industries and their lobbying is just as powerful.

This leaves the problem solely in the hands of each country’s government. Kenya under the health dockets, needs to educate the public as well as legislate the food issues of concern to protect its citizens from a health nightmare of our making.

Ms Mugo is a Mombasa-based finance professional. Email: [email protected]