How Nairobi women struggle to control their weight


Whether you are trying to lose a lot of weight or just looking to shed off a few kilos, getting the scale to go down is a tough battle. December last year, as 2016 came to a close, Viola Apondi weighed 96kg. Her ideal weight, according to her doctor, is 76kg.

“I put on this weight between 2015 and 2016 – when my mother was sick until she succumbed,” Viola says. “When I am stressed I eat: I find solace in food.”

In January 2017, having sensed that living with the extra weight was no longer tenable, Viola signed up at a gym along Mombasa road.

“I have so far lost 5kg – I weigh 91kg now,” she says, smiling off the weight. The battle is far from over. For Nairobi residents, chances of being overweight are much higher than in other parts of the country. In fact, the county is currently experiencing an upsurge in the number of people overshooting the scales. Some are obese.

Data captured by the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey report of 2008-09, indicated that Nairobi, as a province, weighed most in Kenya. Forty one per cent of women in Nairobi, according to the survey, were either overweight or obese compared to 34.9 per cent in Central and 29.3 per cent in Coast.


The US’s National Centre for Biotechnology Information estimates that 55.3 per cent of Kenyans in urban areas are overweight or obese compared to 20.9 per cent of people living in rural areas. According to nutritionist Kepha Nyanumba, Nairobi’s overweight (and obese) population is growing owing to an increasingly wealthier middle class that engages in less physical activity and indulges in fast foods. The statistics might be worse now.

Indeed, the last 10 years have seen mushrooming of fast food chains in Nairobi. Hardly do you walk 50 meters in the city before a fast food joint comes into view.

“When cravings descended I would walk into a pizza joint,” Viola, who admits to having a sweet tooth, says.

Monica Wanjiru, 31, grew up eating lots of chocolate, ice cream, cake, French fries and suchlike foods.

“I lived with my grandparents in Nakuru then,” she says. “They really pampered me.”

With her eating habits, it was only a matter of time before her body began responding. At 13, she was diagnosed with diabetes. And by the time she was 18 she was already weighing 115kg.

In 2015, Monica’s weight reached 142kg. She joined the Ultimate Challenge, a weight loss and fitness programme that aired on KTN. She had already lost 20kg at the time of this interview.

“I need to bring down my weight to between 80 and 90kg,” she said.

Losing weight, Monica added, is not as easy as gaining it. It is a hard reality that Joyce Wambui (not her real name, a businesswoman attests to. Joyce, a mother of two, requested anonymity to protect her children from ridicule from peers.

She says: “I signed up to gyms more than five times. I would lose 10kg in three months then gain 15kg in three weeks.”


Working so hard to lose weight yet falling short brought Joyce to mental anguish. Her weight was fluctuating between 90kg and 100kg.

“That is when I opted for weight loss surgery – I was not willing to lose and gain weight again,” she says.

Dr Vladimir Shchukin, a weight loss surgeon at Holistic Living – a weight loss clinic in Nairobi’s Upper Hill – performed Joyce’s surgery, known in medical terms as bariatric surgery.

“When our team (doctors, dieticians, psychotherapists and physical educator) assessed Joyce we concluded that she was a good candidate for a gastric sleeve: her previous attempts at losing weight with dieting and exercises had failed to achieve the results,” Dr Shchukin says.

A gastric sleeve – a minimally invasive laparoscopic technique – reduces the patient’s stomach to the size of a healthy and slim person. Post-surgery a patient feels full quicker; eating normal sized food portions that is a lot less than what they would consume previously.

It has been three months since Joyce’s surgery and so far she has lost 19kg. In part, Joyce blames her busy life for gaining the weight. “I rarely have time to have a constructive life. I am always busy flying out on business trips. I don’t eat home cooked meals – I depend on fast foods wherever I go because it is quick fix: it saves me time.”

With the increasing numbers of overweight and obese individuals, gym business has witnessed exponential growth as well.

“Today, every estate, every street, every locality has a gym,” Erick Opembe, a gym instructor says. “Today, more Nairobians, by percentage, are going to the gym. Majority of them are on a weight loss mission.”

Majority of gym goers, Erick adds, are women. Before 2010, Dr Schukin recalls, there were hardly any patients visiting his clinic for obesity related treatment. That has since changed.

“Today, I have at least 5 surgeries scheduled every month,” he says, “because patients realise that they would be staring at death if they don’t act.”

Viola goes to the gym four days a week – morning and evening.

“I am still losing weight. However, nowadays coming to the gym has become engaging and quite fun,” she says. Her target is to hit the ideal 76kg and then maintain a lifestyle that won’t see her regain the weight.

As for Joyce, to maintain her progress, she will need to ditch the fast food lifestyle.

“She will need to make lifelong healthy changes – eating smaller portions of balanced diets,” Dr Shchukin says.

At Holistic Living, Dr Schukin says, “we believe that a patient is not fully healed until they bring together the mind, body and spirit.”


Five years ago, Lucy Wachira gave birth to twins. “The pregnancy left me fat with an extra belly. I thought that my body would go back to where it was. It did – but my belly continued to hang down with that extra fat,” Lucy says.

And so, in February 2017, after years of “trying to lose the extra stomach” Lucy decided to seek the services of a cosmetic surgeon. She went to Pranav Pancholi, a cosmetic dermatosurgeon at Avané clinic at Yaya Centre in Nairobi. She underwent coolsculpting – a non-surgical fat-freezing procedure that uses controlled cooling to eliminate stubborn fat that resists dieting and even exercise.

“Lucy chose to take up the weight loss programme, which included coolsculpting; a procedure that is fairly free of pain and does not involve cutting of flesh,” Dr Pancholi says. The clinic has a weight loss program that attracts patients who want to lose weight and firm up the body as well.

Nairobi’s streets provide daily evidence that the city is growing fatter by the day. Beyond the hubbub of city life you will see men behind Range Rovers with distended bellies. The irony of the obesity epidemic is that not long ago Africa attracted charity from outside to combat famine.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), cardiovascular disease has become the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa, due to changes in lifestyle, which often manifests as overweight and obesity. Research now strongly links obesity to diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cancer, arthritis, infertility, heart disease, impotence and stroke.