AFRICA’s growing middle class is increasing the threat of obesity, creating a paradoxical double burden for the continent as it also struggles with malnutrition, according to speakers at a conference on Africa’s role in solving the global food crisis.

With six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies, Africa is experiencing increased urbanisation, leading to changes in eating habits, often for the worse.

While the World Food Programme estimates 870-million people in the world face hunger, up to 2-billion people are malnourished worldwide, with about a third of the world adult population being obese.

CEO of Concern Worldwide Tom Arnold told the Feeding the World conference in Sandton last week that continued obesity in these African countries could drive up costs in health services as the risk of diet-related diseases continued to grow.

"In Africa’s growing economies, the problem of obesity is clear. A serious obesity problem may also be headed to South Africa," Mr Arnold said.

Mr Arnold said maize, excessive sugar, fat and fast-food consumption formed large parts of unhealthy diets in these economies.

"Obesity doesn’t happen overnight. It is the result of daily patterns of living. This becomes costly to a nation and politicians need to be more aware of it," he said.

International Food Policy Research Institute director-general Shenggen Fan said weight problems and obesity were becoming prevalent in emerging economies in Africa.

"Many emerging economies are experiencing a phenomenal increase of people who are overweight and obese. If you go to Nigeria, in some of the urban centres you see the earlier stage of that increase and we need to stop that trend," Mr Fan said.

He said in the past agriculture was aimed at maximising production of grain products, with nutrition not being a priority, and Africa’s agriculture sector needed to begin balancing maximum food production and nutrition.

"We continue to subsidise some of the bad food production. Most subsidies go to rice, wheat and maize. Fruits and vegetables get no subsidies because of structures and pricing. Can we tax unhealthy food and use that money to subsidise healthy food production and research?" he asked.

Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition chairman Jay Naidoo said the best way to address the double burden of obesity and malnutrition was to involve women and young people in agriculture to address the challenge from the ground level.

"There’s a huge migration to the urban areas and an explosion in urban slums, in which there is very little public investment," Mr Naidoo said.