Earn 300% more than the minimum wage? Lessons from the East on how street food can transform Africa's cities

Fighting poverty from the urban streets, but we've got a long way to go yet...

DESPITE being 10pm the small side-street in Kanchanaburi, a town in Western Thailand, was bustling with life. But it wasn’t just the late bars that kept the human traffic moving up and down, it was the incredible variety of readily available street food.

This wasn’t the country’s capital city and yet at least 20 vendors and their families lined the street with an incredible assortment of spicy curries, tangy salads and moreish grilled meats and treats, such as the addictive coconut infused sticky rice with mango. 

While middle and upper class foodies will rant about Thailand’s street food being a connoisseurs delight, it also plays an incredibly important part of life in urban areas across the world. In fact, in 2007 the Food and Agricultural Organisation estimated that over 2.5 billion people eat street food every day.

This huge number is because, as urban populations grow and develop, the expansion stimulates a rise in the number of street food vendors as the demand for quick, cheap and convenient places to eat from outside of home grows.

In Thailand, street food has more than fulfilled this role. For less than a dollar you can eat a big bowl of noodle soup for breakfast (complete with roast pork and greens); for lunch a dollar can buy you a serving of minced chicken salad and a dollar at dinner time can buy you a hearty portion of beef curry and rice. 

Street food has also created and supported incredibly important micro-industries. 

According to the FAO, businesses in Southeast Asia are usually owned and operated by individuals or families but benefits from their trade extend throughout the local economy. For instance, vendors buy their fresh food locally, thus linking their enterprises directly with small-scale farms and market gardens.

The Asian experience

The Asian experience clearly demonstrates the significant role street food can have, even though previously the informal sector was thought to symbolise a lack of economic development that would and should disappear with modernisation. 

But the phenomenon lasted longer and turned out to be less transitional in nature than previously anticipated. In fact, this informal sector appeared to be growing more rapidly than the formal sector in the urban areas of many countries. 

This growth was driven by sellers, attracted to the occupation because of the possibility of earning relatively high incomes. According to the FAO, in Southeast Asia, the average earnings of a vendor may be three to ten times more than the minimum wage and they are often comparable to the wages of skilled labourers employed in the formal sector.

The sector has however also been sustained by solid government regulation, which in Thailand can be traced back to 1941 when attempts to monitor it took shape and the Bangkok Municipality enacted separate regulations monitoring fixed and mobile vending. Since then, the task of restoring order in street vending has always been on the Bangkok Governor’s priority list which ensures certain levels of orderliness, cleanliness and even loans to individuals looking to engage in the sector. 

In tough times

The value of this industry can be particularly seen during the country’s economic recessions in 1979 and 1982, which further compelled authorities to support it since it acted so effectively as a cushion for times when formal jobs were scarce. 

Once again, many African cities are well-poised to take lessons from the East’s experiences…instead of shooting themselves in the foot. 

Africa’s urban areas are booming, experiencing the highest urban growth rate over the last two decades, at 3.5% per year, and this rate of growth is expected to hold into 2050. With this growth, street food is going to become one of the most important components of the residents’ diet. The formal sector will just not be able to keep up! 

In Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, for example, where public sector institutions employ almost 120,000 civil servants, in 2008 there were less than 50 collective catering services or canteens. Already there are trends showing huge numbers of Africans consuming street food, for example in Nigeria urban city dwellers spend as much as half of their food expenditure on street foods and in Bamako, Mali, households spend between 19-27% on street food alone. 

Street food will also be a huge employer bearing in mind that in 1998 (unfortunately there’s also a great lack of research on street food in Africa) it was said to employ 37.8% of the labour force. 

Despite these factors the sector is currently still being sidelined in policy by many African countries. 

“Illegal” food

For example, informal food vending is illegal in Zambia and Zimbabwe and unlicensed vendors are excluded from government support, often chased away from vending sites. This even though in Zimbabwe economic downturn, rapid urban population growth, upsurge in HIV and AIDS epidemic, political instability and rising unemployment drove some Harare residents into the informal sector as food vendors. 

The country’s food legislation, regulation and enforcement have constantly failed to reflect the changing circumstances and incorporate them into town planning to ensure sustainability of street food vending and hence its contribution to sustainable development.

In West Africa specific guidance on street foods remains largely unclear, according to the FAO this is mainly due to overlapping competences, contributing to the absence of targeted regulation of the street food sector. “the process for obtaining it from the municipal (or metropolitan) authorities is complex and unclear, requiring a long list of certificates and visits to different offices, which would discourage even the most motivated vendor.”

By not incorporating street food into policy and ensuring correct practices through legislation the sector faces great risks, not just from the law, but also in terms of health.

For example, in Accra, Ghana, a study to evaluate the role of street food vendors in the transmission of diarrhoea pathogens showed that in 35% of the vending sites food was exposed to flies while 17.1% of the vendors handled food at ground level. Street foods are also sometimes stored at improper temperatures, transported by unhygienic means or sold on unsanitary structures. 

In Kenya a study showed that “about 85% of the vendors interviewed prepared their foods in unhygienic conditions given that garbage and dirty waste were conspicuously close to the stalls” while in Nigeria, running water is not available at most vending sites and washing of hands and crockery are done in bowls or buckets and sometimes without soap.

The latent potential for street food in Africa is huge but it still has a long way to go. Addressed carefully and in an innovative way, it could become a transformative industry in any country’s economy. 


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