The process by which economic growth changes exercise levels in a population is known as the “the physical activity transition” .
As a rule of thumb, the higher the level economic development, the greater the fall in physical activity. Efficient transport systems and fast digital communications encourage sedentary behaviour. This is a problem. Static people are more likely to suffer health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure. The physical activity transition is important because it points to a risk submerged in the generally positive phenomenon of economic development.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the physical activity transition is accelerating. Access to digital technology is improving. Mobile penetration in Africa is growing at roughly 5% per year, faster than anywhere else in the world. At the same time, many countries in Africa lack a culture of exercising for its own sake. According to a recent survey, only one African country featured in the top thirty countries worldwide ranked in terms of healthy physical activity levels. As economies grow and digital technology become more common, work needs to be done to mitigate the potential increase in morbidity and mortality.
Africell Impact and Innovarx Global Health are trialling a solution to this problem. On 1-2 July 2022, they hosted a Health and Wellness Bazaar in The Gambia. The aim of the project, held in Banjul, Gambia’s capital, is to offer a new model of healthcare tailored to the circumstances of a West African country undergoing its own physical activity transition.
The initiative is designed around the idea that in The Gambia, where – as in many other African countries – high-quality health care is unevenly distributed, the best approach to improving health outcomes is to take a preventative approach. Identifying risks at an early stage and encouraging people to adopt healthier lifestyles is more effective and affordable than curing problems after they emerge.
Visitors to the event, which was free and open to all, received tests screening for risks including high blood pressure, diabetes, anaemia, obesity and malnutrition. Doctors, nutritionists and physiotherapists gave personalised advice to individuals based on their results: what diet changes to make to reduce the risk of diabetes, for example. In addition, members of the public joined free group exercise sessions, including a health walk and aerobics training.
“We want to change how people think about health”, says Dr. Ismail D. Badjie, Founder and CEO of Innovarx Global Health. “People need to understand that to a significant extent, it is in their control: for example, what they eat, how much they exercise, and how well they manage risks. The Africell and Innovarx Health and Wellness Bazaar is an important step in a campaign to encourage Gambians to view health as something that they can shape through their own choices”.
The Africell and Innovarx Health and Wellness Bazaar is a promising solution to Gambia’s public health challenges because it reflects the logic that stopping illnesses before they develop is better than fighting them when they flare up. It does this by, among other things, normalising healthy lifestyle practices. By making the testing and consultations free, traditional barriers to screening and seeking advice (which are often priced beyond the reach of ordinary Gambians) are lifted. Members of the public can acquire a snapshot not only of their current health, but also of their individual long-term risk factors. Moreover, with exercise integral to the initiative, the concept of physical activity is reframed as a health booster which ought to be incorporated into daily routines.
Hussein Diab Ghanem, CEO of Africell The Gambia, explains that the collaboration embodies Africell’s vision for responsible digitisation in The Gambia.
“Digitisation is a force for good in the lives of ordinary Gambians. Initiatives like this ensure that digital technology and mobile services promote healthier and more active living. In additional benefits, healthier and more active people tend to contribute more to their communities, so this programme will hopefully have a positive long-term ripple effect”.
In total, free health screening was given to 657 people. A behavioural questionnaire completed by participants revealed both the value and urgency of the initiative. In response to the questions “When was the last time you checked your blood sugar?”, “When was the last time you checked your blood pressure?”, and “When was the last time you saw a doctor?”, 49% of people answered “Never”. If The Gambia and other west African countries with similar levels of social development are to successfully manage current and future health challenges, it will pay for ordinary people to have more opportunities to understand their health status and take simple but effective actions to manage their risks.