Kenya’s Version of ‘The Biggest Loser’ Is Helping Women End an Unexpected Crisis
Olive Wanjiru was 50 pounds lighter and $10,000 richer when she took center stage last Friday, with tears streaming down her face and fireworks and glitter bombs detonating behind her.
“My life will never be the same,” she later said.
The dramatics are a familiar sight for fans of The Biggest Loser, the popular American reality show where contestants battle to lose the most weight and snag the $250,000 grand prize. But this celebration is in Kenya. The country’s own all-female version, Slimpossible, “where to win you have to lose,” had its season finale last Friday, and Wanjiru was declared the winner. In Kenya, women slinging kettle bells on prime time isn’t just for entertainment value—it’s a response to a dire public health crisis.
Communicable diseases like malaria and HIV used to top the list of public health concerns in Kenya, but in recent years, so-called Western diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity are wreaking havoc on Kenyans’ health.
In fact, only 20 percent of deaths from noncommunicable diseases occur in the West; 80 percent occur in low- and middle-income countries like Kenya.
“We’re reaching crisis point. People are dying out there,” said Caroline Simumba of Africa Capacity Alliance, an organization that once focused exclusively on HIV/AIDS but has now broadened its response to include NCDs.
In Kenya, these diseases now account for 27 percent of all premature deaths and 50 percent of hospital admissions.
Before she started Slimpossible, Lina Njoroge saw these deaths firsthand. She was the senior nutrition officer at Kenyatta National Hospital, and she spent her days counseling patients who had been admitted to the ICU after untreated diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension—often caused by obesity. In the capital city of Nairobi, 41 percent of women are obese.
“I’d get home and feel so frustrated. How can I educate people that you can actually prevent these things?” Njoroge said.
Prevention is easier said than done, especially in countries where an overstretched health care system means medical facilities are usually only used as a last resort, if at all.
“We’re talking about undoing people’s behaviors,” said Simumba, and often without any support.
“I’ve tried losing weight on my own for so long, but I couldn’t make it,” said Wanjiru, who tried out for Slimpossible three times before making the cut. She says her poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyle were hard to stem in modern Nairobi.
By 2030, half of Africans will live in cities. Cubicles and cars are replacing agrarian lifestyles, a boon for economic development with less than thrilling effects on health.
“Unhealthy food is so easy to find, and so cheap,” said Wanjiru. “When our mothers were growing up it was completely different; when they walked in town, there weren’t fast-food joints left right and center.”
She’s right—streets are lined with vendors shoveling fried chicken and chips into greasy paper wrapping. Kentucky Fried Chicken opened in Nairobi to great fanfare in 2011 and was soon joined by Domino’s, Coldstone Creamery, and a host of South African chains serving up pizza and burgers. Last year, KFC inaugurated Kenya’s first drive-through, where commuters can pick up those infamous buckets of chicken without leaving the car, a desirable option in the fourth most congested city in the world.
These aren’t just problems for the affluent. In Nairobi’s slums, where malnutrition used to be a primary concern, cheap fried food and soda mean that Kenya’s poor are battling the same issues. Worse, health care is usually unaffordable, meaning it is usually only accessed as a last resort.
But things are changing. Njoroge says attitudes are incomparable to when she started Slimpossible in 2011: “No one ever used to talk about this, and now it’s a national conversation.”
Gladys Mugambi of Kenya’s Ministry of Health says Huduma Centres, one-stop shops for government services, will also provide the basics of preventive medicine, such as testing for high blood pressure, cholesterol, and obesity.
Mobile technology means new mobile health platforms are reaching remote populations. GSMA, an association of mobile operators, works on mobile nutrition in eight African countries, including Kenya. “Prevention of obesity specifically has been flagged as a priority topic by many of the governments we are working with,” said Claire Cranton, director of media relations at GSMA.
Joggers are emerging alongside rush hour traffic and health foods such as quinoa are starting to crop up in grocery stores.
The stakes are high, but so are the payoffs.
“I’ve avoided so much, I’ve avoided diabetes, heart problems, I’ve avoided high blood pressure, all the lifestyle diseases,” said Wanjiru. “There’s hope for Kenyans. If I lost weight, then there’s hope.”