Dietary Transitions in African Cities - MRC-Led Foundation Award

A project led by the University of Sheffield has been awarded a MRC-led Foundation Award to study dietary transitions in African cities. This interdisciplinary partnership of ten co-applicants from five academic institutions across Ghana, Kenya and the UK combines existing and new collaborations. 

  • School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), University of Sheffield, UK 

Michelle Holdsworth (project lead), Amy Barnes, Andrew Booth, Robert Akparibo, Rebecca Pradeilles

  • Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health, University of Ghana, Ghana       

Amos Laar , Richmond Aryeetey

  • African Population and Health Research Center, Kenya                                                         

Elizabeth Kimani-Murage, Stella Muthuri

  • Loughborough University, UK (Centre for Global Health & Human Development; School of the Arts, English and Drama)                                                                          

Paula Griffiths, Emily Rousham, Marco Bohr

  • Department of Geography & Planning, University of Liverpool, UK                                              

Mark Green

Dr. Richmond Aryeetey

Dr. Amos Laar (On the right)

Foundation Awards represent the MRC's first phase of research funding anticipated from the £1.5bn Global Challenges Research Fund. The 41 Foundation Awards led by the MRC, and supported by AHRC, BBSRC, ESRC and NERC, have been allocated to support ambitious, novel and distinctive research in non-communicable diseases and infections, with the aim of improving the health and prosperity of low and middle-income countries through harnessing the UK’s research expertise.

Africa is currently experiencing rapid change partly driven by increasing migration of individuals to cities. Dietary habits are also changing with increasing consumption of unhealthy foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients. Such changes have resulted in increasing levels of obesity in cities, with rates higher for women. Policy responses have been limited in success so far, and are mostly influenced by experiences in higher income countries which are less relevant to African cities. There is also less understanding of the factors that drive food consumption in Africa, particularly the role that people’s social networks play (e.g. family or peer groups) and the neighbourhoods that individuals live in (e.g. access to fast food outlets). There is a need for stronger evidence that accounts for the environments that people live in to inform strategies to promote healthier food consumption in African cities.

Our project will explore the factors that are associated with food consumption patterns (what people eat) and practices (how, where, when and with whom they eat) within two African cities (Nairobi and Accra). We will undertake novel approaches for collecting data on food consumption and practices, and the factors associated with them. The different approaches will use both existing scientific evidence as well as including the views of local people and stakeholders in identifying solutions to the problem of eating poor quality high calorie diets. These will include: reviewing the state of knowledge throughout published research and analysing existing information on dietary behaviours; interviewing people about what kinds of food they eat and how they eat it (e.g. in a hurry, alone or with others) and using photography with local people to explore the factors that influence these decisions. We will also be mapping the food environment in people’s neighbourhoods (e.g. location and type of food outlets available) to explore how characteristics/features in the environment might influence people’s food consumption and practices.  Based upon the results of this, we will be able to identify the range of factors that are associated with dietary patterns and practices. We will then compare these factors to current policy approaches in these settings to assess which gaps may require addressing and identify interventions with local experts and policy makers that may be useful to do so.

The proposed research will strengthen existing partnerships and build new ones, enhancing capacity in research, thereby paving the way for development of new interventions that are more likely to be effective. Our results will then be shared more widely with experts and policy makers from similar African cities via webinars, social media and regular updates on our project website. This will help them design effective strategies to improve dietary patterns and practices to tackle obesity.

The project had a kick off meeting with Kenyan stakeholders in July 2017 in Nairobi.