Category Archives: Identity & the State

21st Century Globalization in the Form of Food in Africa

We hear a lot about how McDonald’s and other fast food chains can now be found in essentially every corner of the world, but the question we had was, does this form of 21st century globalization also apply to Africa?  It turns out that Africa has only fairly recently developed a taste for fast food, but now that love affair is set to take off.  According to the market research company Euromonitor, fast food chains in Africa grew 3-4 percent annually between 2009 and 2014.  Steady growth numbers such as these have made many people in the business world take a closer look at the food service sector in Africa.  This blog post will look at what a possible expansion of fast food will mean for Africans.  We will look at the types and prevalence of fast food as well as the disparities in fast food by region.  We will then take a small dive into the economic, religious, and health effects of fast food in Africa as well as what an increase in fast food will do for Africa’s relationship with the global west and how Africa perceives countries like the United States.


The number one reason for the recent growth in fast food in Africa is the fact that Africa has a growing middle class.  In many places in Africa, there are just now enough people with disposable income to support a fast food restaurant.  On top of that, in many urban areas the lifestyle has undergone a number of changes and now more than ever, more Africans are on the go and in need of a quick meal.  Dionne Searcey, the West and Central African bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote a piece in 2017 about how she has been amazed by how much fast food has grown in the past couple of years. Her major takeaway was that Africans seem to love the American diet regardless of whether or not the food came from an American chain, or a newly_opened African knockoff.


Fast food is not really anything new for some parts of Africa.  In fact, fast food has had a strong presence in South Africa for quite some time.  In a sense, the Republic of South Africa is ground zero for fast food entering the continent.  In 2013 KFC was already well established, with 771 outlets in South Africa and others that were popping up across the region of southern Africa.  Other parts of Africa, such as West Africa and East Africa, are just now starting to see fast food chains come in.  Elias Shulze, a managing partner at the Africa Group said that Nigeria and Kenya are the two best candidates for growth in the fast food sector because both countries have an emerging middle class and a strong private sector already in place.

The strongest motivating factor for the growth of fast food in the changing African economy.  According to Credit Suisse, there are now 20 million African adults who are considered to be in the middle class.  While this is only a little more than 3 percent of Africa’s total population, the African middle class has doubled in the last decade and is expected to grow at the fastest rate in the world by the Development Bank.  Read more here on the African middle class.  All of the growth that has already happened and the future growth that is projected has attracted many investors and developers, and it seems like fast food companies are poised to win big in Africa.


American-styled cuisine has been altered slightly to account for certain religious dietary habits in Africa.  Thirty-three fast food restaurant chains in Africa offer some kind of halal offerings, even American chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and KFC.  There are even some fast food chains that are owned by Muslims and serve traditional Lebanese or Indian food using the fast food model.

The rapid introduction of fast food and the American-style diet into Africa has had several negative health effects for the population.  A World Health Organization study found that the childhood obesity rate has surged in the last 25 years, and the number of obese children on the continent has almost doubled.  At a more local level, the numbers are even more startling.  For instance, in Ghana obesity rates surged 650 percent since the first KFC came in 1980, going from 2 percent of the Ghanaian population to over 13 percent.  In the United States today there is a lot of pressure on fast food chains to fall in line with healthier food practices, and many chains have responded by offering healthier option.  In African fast food restaurants, however, healthier options are rarely or never offered.  The prevalence of the American diet has not just led to an increase in obesity; it has also led to an increase in several related diseases such as diabetes, kidney failure, heart attack, and stroke.  This has put a strain on Africa’s health systems, which are designed to deal with communicable diseases such as malaria or HIV/AIDS and are now having trouble handling the influx of preventable diseases.  In the United States, it is now a widely-known fact that junk food is bad for you and consuming it in large quantities can have detrimental health outcomes.  In Africa, that information is not as clear.  For more information on this issue check out the following links:“McDonald’s Hits the World”


Globalization is not just a one-way street.  It is clear that American food culture has had a large influence on Africans.  However, while this is happening, African culture is making its way into American culture on the African continent.  Most chains have altered their menus to include more local flavors.  There are Pizza Huts in West Africa serving jollof rice as a topping on pizza, and many restaurants offer African food alongside American staples like a burger or chicken nuggets.  Even though most of the fast food restaurants are owned by large brands based in the United States and Europe, quite a few local restaurants are owned by Africans but serve American food.  There is even one instance of one of these African chains taking a trip in the opposite direction over the Atlantic Ocean.  Chesa Nyama, a South African BBQ chicken chain, has been very successful in Africa and recently released plans to open a new restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee.  It should be noted that the Chesa Nyama story is an outlier and not the norm.  For more information on how globalization can work the other way, check out these links:

The success of the American-styled fast food industry in Africa can be largely attributed to the existing perceptions that Africans had about the West.  In many ways, these chains had gotten decades of free advertising through movies, TV shows, and other types of media that featured food like pizza and burgers.  On top of all this free press, fast food chains were able to take full advantage of the long-held belief that Western culture and consumer goods were seen as a sign of class.  If you are eating American food, you are associated with a higher class within society.  Fast food has also benefited from the globalization of technology and the internet.  Many multinational fast food chains have become very effective of advertising via social media sites such as Facebook.  Africans, especially kids and young adults, are exposed to these kinds of restaurants and their American food.  Showing Africans that their peers in America are eating fast food makes Africans want some too.  The interesting thing is that the very thing that Africans hold up as being superior and belonging to a higher class is also causing major health risks.  Time will only tell if the fast food trend can be transformed into a continual growth for the sector in Africa.

For a look at one interesting South African chain that sells “North American” food, check out Spur Steak Ranches.  Notice how their entire idea of North American food is based off of stereotypes.

Religious Foods in Africa

Religions in Africa

Prior to the introduction of religious holidays into Africa, there were many native religions. Despite the vast amount of native religions that each had various traditions and beliefs, they also had many similarities. The main thing that they had in common was the profound effect on the daily lives of Africans. The way they thought, acted, and even who they interacted with was all dependent on their religion and religious beliefs.

Picture34In addition, all religions in Africa had a variety of shared values: “a belief in one God above a host of lesser gods or semi-divine figures; a belief in ancestral spirits; the idea of sacrifice, often involving the death of a living thing, to ensure divine protection and generosity; the need to undergo rites of passage to move from childhood to adulthood, from life to death” (“The Story of Africa”).

Despite the large amount of native religions, today, most of the continent follows Christianity or Islam. 


How did non-native religions get to Africa?


Islam was first introduced to Northern Africa when Muslim refugees came to seek safety from the Arabian Peninsula. The spread continued in the 600s, following Mohammed’s death, when an invasion spread the culture into Western Africa. This was further spread into East Africa, in the eighth century, as trade between West Asia and East Africa began to be more prominent. The first Africans to convert to Islam were Sudanese merchants. The conversion was mainly done by elites: In the 11th century, elites in Ghana began to convert and elites in Mali followed in the 13th century. The spread continued, despite not getting a lot of attention by those of lower social classes, but was sporadic and did not follow any patterns.


According to fable, Christianity was brought from Israel to Egypt in 60 AD by an evangelist. It then slowly spread both east and west. As time progressed, it became a more widely used religion, even becoming the official religion in Ethiopia in the 4th century. In the seventh century, Islam began to become more widely practiced, when compared to Christianity, in the North. It was not completely eradicated, as it was still practiced in some areas, such as Ethiopia. In the fifteenth century, Christianity was spread to Sub-Saharan Africa when the Portuguese arrived and in 1652, the Dutch Reform Church began to be founded. There were still large areas in the middle of the continent that continued practicing native religions until the 1800s, when Christian missionaries came over. They were successful in causing religious changes from native religions to Christianity but were not as successful in causing change from Islam to Christianity.

More information on religion can be found at “The Story of Africa” and “Trade and the Spread of Islam in Africa”.


Holidays in Africa

Because western religions are celebrated in Africa, so are the holidays that come with the various religions. There are many other holidays, though, that are specifically celebrated in each country.

For example, Botswana is primarily Christian; therefore, they celebrate Christmas and Easter, but they also have other national holidays. They have Sir Seretse Khama Day in order to celebrate their first president and Botswana Day to celebrate their independence and Botswana Day to celebrate their independence. At these large events, it is custom to have dances, festivals, speeches, and food. At ceremonial, large, public events, it is common for the men to cook the main part of the meal, which consists of large cast iron pots filled with meat that cooks until tender. Women prepare the side dishes often consisting of “porridge and/ or rice, pumpkin/squash, and often cole slaw or beet salad” (Countries and Their Cultures).

Even holidays that are religious ones celebrated in other regions of the world celebrate with different foods depending on the region.

For instance, again using Botswana as an example, due to the Christian religion, Christmas is celebrated. Combining the Botswanan traditions and Christian ones, the national food, Seswaa (a dish consisting of beef or goat stew over corn porridge), is made. The tradition of giving gifts occurs in Botswana but is less common due to the largely impoverished nation. Instead, the day is filled with family, friends, and traditions.

An example of an Islamic tradition is Eid al-Adha, which is the feast that occurs after a sacrifice. As such, meat, typically, cow, lamb, or goat, is consumed for this Muslim holiday internationally. In Côte d’Ivoire, while this tradition occurs, the animal that is typically sacrificed and served is a sheep, camel, or ox and is served “with sauce, rice, yam or eggplant, salads, and soups or stews” (“Côte d’Ivoire”). This is due to the availability of animals in the region, as well as the accompaniments being foods that are more common and indigenous and therefore available.

The traditional way that most of the religious holidays are celebrated (religious service, fasting, parties, etc.) tend to generally follow the customary, common international practices. Most of the food that is eaten in African countries on holidays are very dependent on the availability of ingredients. They tend to include dishes that are not specific to a certain holiday, but rather dishes that are specific to the region.

This website has a list of all of the public holidays in the various countries in Africa: “Public Holidays Global

Here is more information on “The Holiday Traditions of Botswana

Here is more information on “Côte d’Ivoire”.

National Identity and Food

Food and national identity have long been closely associated with each other.  In the United States people classify restaurants by the country where the dishes they serve are thought to have originated.  Certain dishes have become inseparable from the countries that they come from.  Hamburgers are associated with the United States, tacos are associated with Mexico, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with England, sushi with Japan, and so on.  Chances are you already knew about most of the dishes that were just talked about, but I challenge you to name one national dish from an African country.  Chances are, unless you have been to Africa or studied it, you cannot do it.  That is because in the United States and Europe whenever someone says Africa and food, the first things that pop into our mind are famine and starvation.

Africa does in fact have national dishes or at the very least dishes that are associated with a nation or region.  However, it is important to understand that in Africa national boundaries and cultural boundaries are often two different things.  This makes the development of a national cuisine or any kind of a national culture for that matter, a very complicated process.  This blog post will look at national, regional, and cultural identity and how their complex relationship can be explained through the lens of food.

The first example of how African countries have struggled to formulate a national food comes out of Ghana in the early years of independence.  In 1957 Ghana became the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence from its colonizer and their first President, Kwame Nkrumah was focused on bringing about national unity.  He struggled to this as the many ethnic groups desired to reinforce ethnic boundaries, but regardless Nkrumah tried hard to create a unifying Ghanaian culture.  As part of this, there were efforts to establish a national cuisine, but unfortunately, they never truly materialized.  With Cocoa production taking on such an important role in the post-colonial economy, many advocated for making cocoa a national food, but Nkrumah say that cocoa was already a part of Asante culture, and that making cocoa a national food would be seen as favoritism to one ethnic tradition.  This is an example of how complex formulating a national cuisine can be.

There are also examples of how regional cuisines have been adapted to become part of a national identity.  Since neighboring countries often share similar climates and economic realities, it is not unusual for their food to be quite similar.  One example of this is Jollof rice in West Africa.  This dish, which originated in Senegal, can be found across western Africa in a number of different variations.  The popularity of the dish has sparked a friendly competition over which country has the best jollof rice.  The debate is particularly fierce between Ghana and Nigeria where government officials and celebrities from each country talk about why their country’s version of the dish is better.  This is an example of how a regional dish can turn into a national dish and become a symbol of national identity.

It is important to note that the development of a national cuisine is influenced by the history of that country.  In Africa this is important because the colonizing countries played a big role in influencing the culinary traditions that would go on to be a part of national identity.  There are many instances of this.  One example is in Nigeria where the cuisine found there today is heavily influenced by both of the country’s colonizers; the Portuguese and the British.  Fried plantains and sweet potatoes are very popular today in Nigeria, but they were originally brought there by Portuguese sailors.  The same is true in Zimbabwe where oatmeal and porridge are commonly eaten for breakfast, a tradition that is part of their national identity thanks to British rule.

While the development of a national cuisine has been a struggle in many African countries, there is evidence that today food is very much a part of national identity.  Nowhere is this more evident than it is with African diaspora.  African immigrants in the United States and Europe can shop at grocery stores and restaurants that have food from their country of origin.  These businesses are able to stay open and operate overseas because they have a loyal clientele that keep coming back to eat the food that they identify with.

Africa is a large continent with an impressive variety of both cultures and food.  The diversity of cultures and historical backgrounds make African countries what they are today.  While some countries were able to establish some kind of national cuisine, other still struggle to do so and cuisines divide as nations instead of uniting them.