Reasons to Reconsider Celebrating KFC Expansion in Malawi

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The thought of a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) opening up in Malawi might have sent me over the moon years ago. Today, I am less than thrilled to hear that KFC is opening a restaurant in Lilongwe on February 25, 2016.

Some see it as something to be celebrated and a sign of economic development in a country that now ranks as one of the poorest in the world. How can we not rejoice about Malawi’s second KFC and the nation’s first fast-food restaurant with drive-thru service?

The countries $226.50 GDP per capita first comes to mind. Then there is the reality that most Malawians do not own cars and depend on shared public transportation (overloaded mini-van taxis and buses), bicycles, and long walks to get from place to place—if you’ve driven on a Malawi street, you know the amount of effort it takes to dodge cyclists, pedestrians, and other beings.

I’d argue that a cycle or walk-thru might have made more sense, but clearly the carless masses is not the demographic that KFC and other fast-food companies that are increasingly expanding into Africa are trying to reach. Unlike in developed nations, restaurants like Pizza Hut, Dominos, McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC are aiming for the Africa’s middle- and upper-class.

They are the ones who can afford to forgo their domestic workers’ healthy home-made foods and pay the high-cost for delicious American-like food. And it’s not uncommon for some to accompany their local dining at an American fast-food chain restaurant with bragging rights—it’s just like in that movie or show they just watched, or the time they travelled abroad.

There is a part of me that wants to applaud international companies and investors that have their eyes on Africa, and support everyone’s right to have all the deep-fried chicken, pizza, burger, and fries they want and can afford. Yet, there is another troubling reality that stops me from doing so. Africa’s growing obesity rate.

A number of reports have documented the rise of obesity rates in developing nations. Globally, one-third of adults are overweight and two-third of them are said to be from low- and middle-income nations; obesity rates in developing nations also are reported to be rising rapidly and at a faster rate than in developed nations. This isn’t surprising when consumers in developed nations—supported by public health advocates and government health campaigns—are moving away from unhealthy fast-foods and demanding healthier options, something that may help explain the fast-food industry’s desire to expand into developing nations.

This January, the U.N. World Health Organizations released an Ending Childhood Obesity report. The report states that the number of obese children in Africa nearly doubled from 5.4 million to 10.3 million between 1990 and 2014. Childhood obesity is seen as a serious public health concern for developed and developing nations. Changes in diet that have come from urbanisation and environments that encourage weight gain are partly to blame.

For developing nations like Malawi, obesity increases the burden of fighting malnutrition: malnutrition now results from the undernourishment that comes from lacking food plus from the excess consumption of calorie-dense nutrition-poor foods. Also, poor nations with inadequate health care systems can now expect an increase in obesity-related chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer.

So, wealthier Malawians in Lilongwe and their children can now indulge in their share of buckets of fried chicken. Yay, but that I am holding my cheer. KFC maybe finger lickin’ good but obesity doesn’t help development. This may be hard to swallow in a country where telling someone they have gotten a little chunky is an honest, well-meaning compliment, and in a culture where being somewhat overweight is seen as a sign of wealth and not having to struggle for food; however, more of us need to start redefining our definition of development. It’s not enough to simply want to emulate what merely looks like economic development.

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