1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Obesity in Africa

Chrispin Mwakideu
September 12, 2019

There is a silent epidemic sweeping through Africa and it’s worse than HIV. Out of the 20 fastest rising countries with obesity, nearly half of them are in Africa. The health burden on the continent is rising.

Tasty Frito Lay Snacks
Image: Imago-Images/R. Levine

In the past, Africa has often been portrayed as a starving and hungry continent. That seems to be changing rapidly. Obesity is now becoming a huge health challenge especially among the low and middle-class in Africa's urban cities. Eight out of the 20 fastest rising countries with adult obesity are found in Africa.

The World Health Organization describes obesity or overweight as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to human health. 

Carrying that extra bulge be it around the waistline, arms or legs could put one at risk of suffering non communicable diseases such diabetes, heart diseases or even stroke. It could also trigger cancers such as breast cancer, colon cancer, kidney cancer, ovarian cancer and others.

A market stall in Cabinda
Processed food may have a longer shelf life but they could shorten ones lifespanImage: Getty Images/AFP/I. Sanogo

The African potbelly myth

In many African households, carrying a pot belly is a sign that this person is wealthy and well-fed but that is false. Apart from a stomach tumor or any other illness, a protruding tummy or being overweight is actually a sign of bad nutrition and the lack of exercise. 

Obesity and overweight kills more people globally than underweight. In Africa, obesity and overweight has added a double burden to the already stretched health sectors that have to deal with communicable diseases.

Being obese is one of the leading causes of type 2 Diabetes which has been on the increase in many African countries. In 2018, The Lancet Journal on Diabetes & Endocrinology revealed that diabetes prevalence in Africa has increased a worrying 129% since 1980. What's more, the economic burden to deal with diabetes will likely increase to nearly $60 billion (53 billion euro) by 2030 in sub-Saharan Africa.

Diabetes linked to obesity

According to a study by scientists, having extra fat especially around your waistline could interfere with the effectiveness of insulin, a crucial hormone produced by the pancreas which regulates the body's sugar level by breaking down glucose and turning it into energy. Being overweight disrupts your metabolism and thus increases the risk of becoming diabetic.

Infograph showing cost of monthly income worldwide on diabetes

A group of researchers recently warned that supermarkets are creating an obesity crisis in Africa. The rising middle-class in many African countries prefers to buy processed foods,  rich in sugars and fats rather than eating fresh food.

To fight overweight and obesity, there is need to go back to grandma's recipe. That means eating vegetables, legumes, nuts, freshly cut fruit and the likes. Instead of going for a burger and gobbling it down with a soft drink full of sugar, go for a piece of fish with veggies and some fruit.

Fruits on display at a market in Rwanda
To fight obesity there is need to eat fresh fruit and vegetables while doing regular exerciseImage: picture-alliance/robertharding/C. Kober

Government's role in fighting obesity

One effective way of fighting obesity is through government policy. Take South Africa, for example, in a bid to discourage people from drinking sugar and calorie filled soft drinks, the South African government recently passed a bill to implement taxes on sugary drinks. This measure has already had some success in reducing consumption and obesity in some countries.

The World Health Organization says more than 2 billion people worldwide are overweight. Of this, 650 million of them are obese. WHO is urging governments and the international community to act fast in order to tackle this growing dangerous epidemic.

If the government plays its role of regulating sugary and fat foods intake, and we stick to eating healthy and doing regular exercise; approximately 30 minutes of working out or 15 minutes of brisk walking everyday, then we will be on our way to reducing obesity and thereby eliminating the chances of diabetes and heart diseases in Africa.