After finishing high school a decade ago, Daniel Awaitey enrolled in computer courses, dropped out to work in a hotel, then settled into a well-paying job in the booming oil sector here.
He has an apartment, a car, a smartphone and a long-distance girlfriend he met on a dating website. So he had reasons and the means to celebrate his 27th birthday in late July. His boss and co-workers joined him for an evening of laughter and selfies, lingering over dinner at his favorite restaurant: KFC.
Mr. Awaitey first learned about the fried chicken chain on Facebook. The "finger lickin' good" slogan caught his attention and it has lived up to expectations. "The food is just ——" he said, raising his fingertips to his mouth and smacking his lips. "When you taste it you feel good."
Ghana, a coastal African country of more than 28 million still etched with pockets of extreme poverty, has enjoyed unprecedented national prosperity in the last decade, buoyed by offshore oil. Though the economy slowed abruptly not long ago, it is rebounding and the signs of new fortune are evident: millions moving to cities for jobs, shopping malls popping up and fast food roaring in to greet people hungry for a contemporary lifestyle.
Chief among the corporate players is KFC, and its parent company, YUM!, which have muscled northward from South Africa — where KFC has about 850 outlets and a powerful brand name — throughout sub-Saharan Africa: to Angola, Tanzania, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and beyond. The company brings the flavors that have made it popular in the West, seasoned with an intangible: the symbolic association of fast food with rich nations.
But KFC's expansion here comes as obesity and related health problems have been surging. Public health officials see fried chicken, french fries and pizza as spurring and intensifying a global obesity epidemic that has hit hard in Ghana — one of 73 countries where obesity has at least doubled since 1980. In that period, Ghana's obesity rates have surged more than 650 percent, from less than 2 percent of the population to 13.6 percent, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent research center at the University of Washington.
The causes of obesity are widely acknowledged as complex — involving changing lifestyles, genetics, and, in particular, consumption of processed foods high in salt, sugar and fat.
KFC's presence in Ghana so far is relatively modest but rapidly growing, and it underscores the way fast food can shape palates, habits and waistlines.
Research shows that people who eat more fast food are more likely to gain weight and become obese, and nutrition experts here express deep concern at the prospect of an increasingly heavy and diabetic population, without the medical resources to address a looming health crisis that some say could rival AIDS.
"You are what you eat," said Charles Agyemang, a Ghanaian who is now an associate professor at the University of Amsterdam, where he studies obesity and chronic disease. KFC alone, he said, is only one factor in the country's obesity epidemic, but it represents the embrace of western foods. In Ghana, he said, "eating local foods in some places is frowned upon. People see the European type as civilized."
"This is having a major impact on obesity and heart disease."
KFC executives see a major opportunity here to be part of people's regular routines, a goal they are advancing through a creative marketing campaign and use of social media. When asked if it is unhealthy for people to eat fried chicken often, Kimberly Morgan, a KFC spokeswoman in Plano, Texas, said, "At KFC, we're proud of our world famous, freshly in-store prepared fried chicken and believe it can be enjoyed as a part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle."
Company representatives said they take health seriously in the region, noting their sponsorship of a youth cricket league in South Africa. The company, they said, has worked to make their menu more diverse and healthier.
"That's why we provide consumers choice," said Andrew Havinga, who runs the supply chain for KFC's Africa division. "We do believe in a healthy, balanced lifestyle."
For now, though, KFC customers in Ghana have fewer healthy options than in Western countries. Grilled chicken, salads and sides like green beans and corn, standard at KFC in the United States, aren't available here. Mr. Havinga said KFC hoped to offer Ghanaians more options eventually. "That's part of our journey," he said.
KFC emphasizes its focus on food sanitation and cleanliness. Ghanaian customers interviewed spoke appreciatively of the tidy containers used for takeout and the hairnets worn by workers.
"We wouldn't go into a market unless we are comfortable that we can deliver the same food safety standards that we deliver around the world and people see that," Greg Creed, the chief executive of YUM!, said in an interview last year on CNN. "They actually trust us that it's so much safer to eat at a KFC in Ghana, than it is to eat obviously, you know, pretty much anywhere else."
Some nutrition experts bristle at the implication.
"To say it's the safest food is a bit like saying my hand grenade is the safest hand grenade," said Mike Gibney, an emeritus professor of food and health at University College Dublin. "Ghanaians would be better off eating less KFC. But that is the way of the world I'm afraid."
In Ghana, a place that suffered severe food shortages as recently as the early 1980s, attempts at curbing obesity have butted up against long held societal views: girth can be a welcome sight here. To many, weight gain is an acceptable side effect of a shift from hunger to joyful consumption.
"People march their sons and daughters to buy KFC and buy pizza and they like to show them what we can afford," said Matilda Laar, who lectures about family and consumer sciences at the University of Ghana. KFC isn't just food, she said. "It's social status."
Mr. Awaitey, who celebrated his 27th birthday at a KFC, was raised eating local dishes like soup and banku, a mix of fermented corn and cassava dough. He has increasingly made KFC part of his routine. Some nights on his way home from work, he turns off a sewer-lined street — jammed with cars and crisscrossed by men hawking sunglasses and women selling doughnuts from baskets they carry on their heads — and steps into a world transformed: a tidy, air-conditioned KFC where Bruno Mars blares. He orders dinner with a Coke, sitting in a translucent red plastic chair at a white table beneath giant faux Polaroids of children blowing bubbles in a park and a couple strolling on a beach.
"When I grew up I did not have the benefits I'm enjoying today," Mr. Awaitey said. "This didn't even exist.