Obesity Was Rising as Ghana Embraced Fast Food. Then Came KFC.

“You are what you eat,” said Charles Agyemang, a Ghanaian who is now an associate professor at the University of Amsterdam, where he studies obesity and chronic disease. KFC alone, he said, is only one factor in the country’s obesity epidemic, but it represents the embrace of western foods. In Ghana, he said, “eating local foods in some places is frowned upon. People see the European type as civilized.”

“This is having a major impact on obesity and heart disease.”

KFC executives see a major opportunity here to be part of people’s regular routines, a goal they are advancing through a creative marketing campaign and use of social media. When asked if it is unhealthy for people to eat fried chicken often, Kimberly Morgan, a KFC spokeswoman in Plano, Texas, said, “At KFC, we’re proud of our world famous, freshly in-store prepared fried chicken and believe it can be enjoyed as a part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.”

Company representatives said they take health seriously in the region, noting their sponsorship of a youth cricket league in South Africa. The company, they said, has worked to make their menu more diverse and healthier.

“That’s why we provide consumers choice,” said Andrew Havinga, who runs the supply chain for KFC’s Africa division. “We do believe in a healthy, balanced lifestyle.”

For now, though, KFC customers in Ghana have fewer healthy options than in Western countries. Grilled chicken, salads and sides like green beans and corn, standard at KFC in the United States, aren’t available here. Mr. Havinga said KFC hoped to offer Ghanaians more options eventually. “That’s part of our journey,” he said.

KFC emphasizes its focus on food sanitation and cleanliness. Ghanaian customers interviewed spoke appreciatively of the tidy containers used for takeout and the hairnets worn by workers.

“We wouldn’t go into a market unless we are comfortable that we can deliver the same food safety standards that we deliver around the world and people see that,” Greg Creed, the chief executive of YUM!, said in an interview last year on CNN. “They actually trust us that it’s so much safer to eat at a KFC in Ghana, than it is to eat obviously, you know, pretty much anywhere else.”

Some nutrition experts bristle at the implication.

“To say it’s the safest food is a bit like saying my hand grenade is the safest hand grenade,” said Mike Gibney, an emeritus professor of food and health at University College Dublin. “Ghanaians would be better off eating less KFC. But that is the way of the world I’m afraid.”

In Ghana, a place that suffered severe food shortages as recently as the early 1980s, attempts at curbing obesity have butted up against long held societal views: girth can be a welcome sight here. To many, weight gain is an acceptable side effect of a shift from hunger to joyful consumption.

“People march their sons and daughters to buy KFC and buy pizza and they like to show them what we can afford,” said Matilda Laar, who lectures about family and consumer sciences at the University of Ghana. KFC isn’t just food, she said. “It’s social status.”

Photo

Daniel Awaitey, center, celebrated his 27th birthday with friends at a KFC in Accra in July. “When I grew up I did not have the benefits I’m enjoying today,” Mr. Awaitey said of the restaurant. “This didn’t even exist.”

Credit
Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

Mr. Awaitey, who celebrated his 27th birthday at a KFC, was raised eating local dishes like soup and banku, a mix of fermented corn and cassava dough. He has increasingly made KFC part of his routine. Some nights on his way home from work, he turns off a sewer-lined street — jammed with cars and crisscrossed by men hawking sunglasses and women selling doughnuts from baskets they carry on their heads — and steps into a world transformed: a tidy, air-conditioned KFC where Bruno Mars blares. He orders dinner with a Coke, sitting in a translucent red plastic chair at a white table beneath giant faux Polaroids of children blowing bubbles in a park and a couple strolling on a beach.

“When I grew up I did not have the benefits I’m enjoying today,” Mr. Awaitey said. “This didn’t even exist.

‘Skin in the Game’

In late July, Ashok Mohinani, whose company owns all the KFC franchises in Ghana, dabbed away a smear on a plate-glass window in the dining room of a KFC on the outskirts of Accra as customers trickled in after the doors opened at 10 a.m. It was the newest KFC in the nation, the 13th so far, and Mr. Mohinani was eager to see how it would be received.

The executive director of Mohinani Group, he came to restaurants late, after years in other industries, notably plastics. In 2011, he saw potential in fast food. Incomes were rising as Ghana’s oil business took off and other commodities soared; that year the country achieved “lower middle-income” status, according to the World Bank. Its economy had grown 7 percent a year since 2005.

In Accra, the country’s densely populated capital, it was plain that diets were changing. Mr. Mohinani had watched street fare evolve from stews and porridges to fried rice and knockoff Cheetos. Vendors now stocked glass cabinets with fried chicken, which in the past families served only on holidays.

The first fast food restaurants to move in were local chains that served fried chicken and mimicked Western brands. Mr. Mohinani was convinced a foreign chain would succeed.

“The obvious brand,” he said, “was KFC.”

KFC had established a beachhead in South Africa, opening there in the early 1970s. It is now so popular that its executives say they impress dinner-party guests by name-dropping the company where they work.

In 2012, Mr. Mohinani opened a KFC franchise that included the first drive-through restaurant in the nation. People streamed in on foot, just to check it out.

“It was beautiful,” he said.

Now, he said, the goal is to move KFC from a special treat to routine. Toward that end, he has opened restaurants alongside gas stations. “We want this to evolve into the idea of getting it to be a daily brand.”

Continue reading the main story