Dr. Salimata Wade is changing the urban Senegalese food culture and building a new nutritional African gastronomy to prevent and treat the chronic diseases that are becoming endemic in urban areas.
In response to the increase of chronic diseases in Senegalese cities, Salimata (Saly) is leading a change in the food culture toward a diet that is based on healthy, local food products and modernized recipes and cooking methods. This presents preventative and curative options for most diet-related diseases. These options are affordable and complement or replace prescription-based care.
Saly’s organization, Healthy Food Company, has documented the benefits and uses of various local products and dishes. She builds partnerships with medical practitioners to provide diet-based treatment plans for patients in addition to their medical prescriptions. Doctors send patients to her for nutritional and dietary consultations and she provides monitoring and follow-up services, the results of which are passed back to doctors. The dietary and nutritional changes she has proposed allow for more effective treatment overall and contribute to good health beyond the prescription period.
Beyond meeting the needs of patients in the medical system, Saly is working to change the attitudes and practices of the public. She focuses on food education and training programs to transform the urban Senegalese diet in the long-term, with key institutions. Saly has partnered with a state training school to migrate the school’s diet and nutrition curriculum from expensive foreign solutions to affordable local options. To tip the corporate sector, Saly partners with large companies to include her training in their workforce programs, with the incentive that healthy living reduces health insurance and treatment costs.
Rapid urbanization has brought about drastic changes in the diet and lifestyle of Senegalese people. Compared to rural habits, the urban lifestyle is considerably more sedentary with more processed foods and less healthy cooking practices, which has led to an increase in diet and lifestyle-related diseases, i.e. hypertension (high blood pressure), which affects 30 percent of the population; obesity, which affects an equal proportion; hypercholesterolemia, which affects just under 50 percent of Senegalese; and diabetes at about 2 percent of the population. These diseases impose considerable ongoing expenses—compounded by poverty and poor healthcare systems.
These diseases can be fatal and their treatment expensive. However they can be prevented and resolved through dietary changes. In fact, the traditional African diet is composed of natural and local foods that provide the nutritional base for good health. However, Senegalese city dwellers prefer and aspire to foreign processed imports. In addition, more modern but unhealthy food is cheaply available on the streets, thus disincentivizing the preparation and consumption of healthier, local alternatives. Although doctors and nutritionists could play a leading role promoting dietary changes and the consumption of healthier local foods, they have not stepped up at this potentially transformative moment. They tend to provide pharmaceutical solutions or play an advisory role, providing medical prescriptions and healthy living tips. Moreover, the specialized training on diet solutions for diseases that they receive from the National Training School for Family and the Social Economy (ENFES) is often copied from French programs. The foods the dieticians recommend are foreign or vegetarian-based, difficult to find in local markets and often prohibitively expensive for most Senegalese. Even for those who can afford such exotic meals, the special diet makes it difficult for them to share meals with their families.
Saly is building an appreciation for the health benefits of a diet based on nutritious, local food products and increasing their consumption among urban Senegalese. There are three components to her approach. The first is to create a knowledge base of the uses and benefits of these food products and build a brand around them. The second is to incorporate this knowledge into complementary prescriptions for the medical treatment of diet and lifestyle-related diseases. The third component is based on providing food education to each segment of society.
Saly established Healthy Food Company to create a brand around healthy local food products and traditional recipes. Before endorsing certain products and dishes, Saly spent three years researching the uses for various local ingredients and recipes. She matched specific dietary interventions to various ailments and diseases. Saly then tested the outcomes of her recommended food items in partnership with doctors and patients. This included a partnership that allowed her to study the dietary habits and health outcomes of all patients at Abass Ndao Hospital in Dakar. Upon completion of the research phase of her work, Saly created a logo for the Healthy Food Company to endorse specific products and dishes so that all Senegalese, literate or not, can recognize healthy food options.
Saly used the results of her research to partner with various medical practitioners to treat illnesses. General practitioners and medical specialists (i.e. gynecologists, endocrinologists, cardiologists, and nephrologists) send patients to Healthy Food Company for nutritional education and follow-up. Doctors provide the medical analysis for each patient and Healthy Food Company develops dietary recommendations that complement their medical prescriptions. Saly has evaluated the work of her organization and has presented her findings on the health outcomes of dietary interventions to Cheikh Anta Diop University.
Providing food education and training is another component of Saly’s work. She has partnered with ENFES, a state training school that provides family welfare vocational training. Their students go on to work in hospitals and the National Nutrition Center or teach Family Welfare in colleges. Saly is working with ENFES to adapt its curriculum to the Senegalese context and build food education based on incorporating healthy local food products and recipes into their training program. In this way, Saly is shifting nutrition and family welfare training programs toward Senegalese food and culture. At a community level, she works with the Ngor Community to launch food education from kindergarten through primary school for both poor and wealthy students. With this pilot project, Saly wants to provide an example of how a healthy diet can contribute to child health. Mothers and street restaurant owners also receive training as part of this initiative and expand its impact.
Saly is also building partnerships with companies to incorporate her food education curriculum into workforce trainings. She has worked with the Senegalese National Telecommunication Company and the Agency for the Development of Small and Middle-sized Enterprises to educate the permanent staff on the importance of a healthy local diet that can positively influence their health and reduce health insurance expenses. She reaches the public through radio programs and a column in a weekly newspaper. Saly also has regular slots during Ramadan on Senegal’s national TV channel, RTS. These programs aim to popularize local food products and cooking techniques and promote dietary supplements to address diet-related illnesses. The success of the shows have earned her a contract for an animated show on healthy cooking based on local Senegalese products and recipes. Thus, Saly is building the popularity and demand for products with an appreciation for the importance of healthy living.
Looking forward, Saly will build up the entire food production chain of local, healthy food products. She wants to develop distribution channels for the products through supermarket franchises across Senegal. Cumulatively, this will contribute to the emergence of a “sustainable quality culture” in food production that promotes affordable, healthy living options for all Senegalese.
Saly understood that there are connections between various societal challenges from a young age. This led her to study a broad array of subjects in order to understand and find cross-cutting solutions. Thus, in addition to her bachelor’s degree in biology and a PhD in geography, she studied real estate law, marketing, and management. After twelve years of study, she returned to Dakar to become a history, geography and French professor. She was quickly put off by the abstract and theoretical nature of teaching.
Saly decided to take a leave and worked as a consultant to citizen organizations and the UN, on environmental issues. Although she managed a large budget, she was prevented from working directly with people. Saly found herself questioning the legitimacy of her position as the representative of French-speaking people in international meetings. She was discouraged that her expertise did not enable her to make a change in the world, and she gradually saw her health decline from overwork. Saly resigned in 2005 to focus on her personal health through healthier lifestyle choices and diet. Her health improved so quickly without medication that doctors facing difficulty curing their patients, urged her to share what she had learned.
As Saly’s work expanded, she faced a different challenge. Since she did not have professional medical training, she had to work under the supervision of doctors, dieticians, nutritionists, and psychologists to create dietary recommendations adapted to each patient’s medical prescriptions. Saly quickly realized the scope of the social problem. She saw that metabolic diseases did not result from economic issues, but from structural, very much including nutritional, issues. She therefore set out to change the Senegalese lifestyle.