We believe, living in Africa, that we live close to nature; that while we enjoy certain benefits of civilisation we are not too far away from our ancestors and the wild. This is somewhat of a myth despite what the figures may suggest. Kenya has a gross domestic product of about $55 billion, approximately the same as the American state of Maine, which has a population of just 1.3 million compared to our 44 million. The United States has more than 3,000 counties, the poorest of which has a per capita income of over $8,000; our national per capita is an average of $1,245. We may believe that we are not doing too badly, after all the United States is the richest country in the world but it's good to note that our per capita income is roughly what Japan or Mexico was in...1900. So having a couple of good roads, M-Pesa is a really good thing but it tells you that there are some things that we do very poorly. Health is one of them.
One of the buzzwords from a few years ago was ‘globalisation’. The term describes a world that is interconnected and integrated with the free movement of capital, goods and services. The idea from an economist’s perspective is that each country focuses on what they do best and then everything becomes cheaper and better. In Kenya’s case, a few years back that would have meant we would give every country in the world someone to run 3,000 metres steeplechase so that they have a chance to win a medal in the event. But now we know better and should be able to run the entire athletics championships from start to finish. But the question we should ponder is what do we get in exchange? The answer to the horror of many and the delight of a few is sugar.
The use of sugar from the cultivation of sugar cane is more than 5,000 years old. For thousands of years it was grown in small quantities around India, the Persian Gulf and bits of Europe until Christopher Columbus in 1493 took some with him to the West Indies, where they discovered that it grew much faster than anywhere else in the world. Fast forward to today and sugar is no longer about a grass stalk that is chewed merrily with syrup dripping down the side of your mouth. It is an industrial crop that is used in very many processes. Primarily sugar is used because of its sweet taste. Unlike many sweet tasting compounds it remains sweet even in relatively large quantities, try tasting a teaspoon of sweetener and you will realize that what tastes sweet in small quantities can be bitter in larger ones. But sugar is not just a sweetener it has a wide variety of uses in food technology including as a preservative, in fermentation and as a texture modifier in various foods. Its nice taste means that it can be used to hide the taste primarily of many other chemicals put in foods for other reasons including preservatives and colorants. And herein lies the danger of sugar.
If we are to believe that we are an underdeveloped nation trying to catch up with more developed nations then there are some things that we really should not be trying to do. One of them is consuming sugar. The developed world has an emerging health crisis of non-communicable diseases, which shows up, in the number of obese persons and the growing number with diabetes mellitus. Developing countries are not far behind, but suffer from a ‘double burden’ of disease, they have yet to get rid of communicable diseases like malaria, diarrhoea yet not have this emerging health threat. Compounding this threat is the lack of resources to manage healthcare properly. What that means is that the little resources we have need to be managed prudently and with foresight.
Almost every person in Kenya who is in a leadership position has or knows someone close who has a non-communicable disease such as diabetes or hypertension. The development of such conditions is a combination of factors that arise from the lifestyle of each individual over a 20-year plus span after they finish school. Unfortunately, no matter how careful you are as an individual, the food and nutrition policy environment determines the choices of food available to the general public and at what price. Coupled with proper general and health education, it is possible to have a population that is healthy and productive without waiting 100 years for the economy to catch up with developed countries. Should we be encouraging cheap sugar? That should not be the debate. The real debate should be why we think we need sugar at all. It has been shown to be a real danger.