It’s time to stop ignoring the problem of obesity in Botswana

22 Jun 2018

Botswana’s obesity crisis appears more unstoppable than ever. According to Cardiovascular Journal of Africa, Botswana is struggling with an obesity problem and the trend has been progressively increasing in both children and adults.

Recent reports show that the prevalence of obesity among females is way much higher as compared to the males. The female obesity prevalence as a share of female ages 18+ is currently at 31.1 whilst male obesity prevalence as a share of male population ages 18+ is 10.2. Since 2016, both male and female prevalence grew at an average annual rate of 2.08%.

Obesity or overweight is a condition whereby a person has abnormal or excessive fat accumulation which poses a risk to the health and well-being of that person. People who are overweight have a higher chance of early death in adulthood.

Although current estimates show that 58% of the population in Botswana is urbanised, the Cardiovascular Journal of Africa says the ironic situation in which “poverty and high levels of overweight and obesity co-exist in urban settings, may be explained by reduced levels of physical activity in all groups. Coupled with rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and increased sedentary lifestyles, these nutritional and demographic transitions have ushered in the rapid emergence of non-communicable diseases, including hypertension, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases.”

The Journal also says a dietary shift away from high-fibre to energy dense foods is to blame for the increase in obesity in Botswana. “Overweight and obesity are therefore assuming epidemic proportions in the country. The growing prevalence of overweight and obesity, with a national prevalence between 30 and 60% of populations over the age of 15 years, is largely due to dietary shift away from high-fibre, low-calorie diets rich in fruits and vegetables towards refined, energy-dense foods high in fat, calories, sweeteners and salt, and this affects females disproportionately,” states the report.

According to WHO in a report titled “Saving lives, spending less: a strategic response to NCDs,” every P10 invested in scaling up actions to address from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) in middle income countries such as Botswana,  there will be a return to society of at least P70 in increased employment, productivity and longer life.

If more than 20 percent of a country’s adult population is obese, it is considered a public health threat to obesity. Adults over 20 years of age are considered obese when their body mass index (BMI) is greater or equal to 30. If a person’s BMI is equal to or more than 25 he or she is considered overweight.

A health consultant, Muriel Sepapi, who spoke to this publication indicated that although Botswana is growing to become one of the fattest nations on the African continent, the country still has no obesity strategy. With approximately thirty percent of Batswana overweight or obese, the figure is expected to rise to more than 50 percent by 2025 if the government doesn’t change the food environment through hard policy.

“Despite numerous warnings and reports from the United Nations (UN) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) about the soaring obesity crisis, Botswana has had successive governments not regulating junk food marketing to manage obesity,” says Sepapi. It is a fact that the role of government is not to put a ceiling on individual freedoms, but to enable them through policy and legislation which allows people to truly and freely exercise their personal responsibility.

She also indicated that “unless the government changes the food environment through hard policy and legislation, it’s doubtful that the country will make any progress in its bid to tackle obesity.”

She also says any hard policy strategy that can be formulated should not view obesity through a narrow prism of what people eat, but should also be on equal footing with physical activity. Sepapi also says Botswana, and by extension Southern Africa, can take a leaf out of the books of many countries which have changed the economics of food supply. “Other countries tax sugary foods and beverages and fatty processed foods,” he says. Although that might seem a reasonable idea, it does not take into account the fact that the food industry has commercial and political drivers who lobby against such policies.

Food is now available everywhere at any time and it is not only fatty but full of salt and sugar. There is plenty of proof which shows that in order to address obesity, this should be made a political main concern. However, for most politicians this topic is a political dare.  Sadly the government has not done much about it. The result is we – as Batswana – are fat.