We are currently seeking funding to support this research project

Street Food – Maximising the potential for urban livelihoods and food security

“Street foods are ready-to-eat foods and beverages prepared and/or sold by vendors or hawkers especially in the streets and other similar places.” (FAO, 2016[1])

“Street foods may be the least expensive and most accessible means of obtaining a nutritionally balanced meal outside the home for many low income people” (FAO, 2016)

The Challenge

More and more people are moving to towns and cities, living in new conditions, disconnected from social networks, struggling to exist on uncertain incomes in insecure and often crowded living conditions. Getting some form of income and meeting basic food and nutrition needs are primary challenges for large proportions people in the growing urban areas. Across Africa, even where there is substantial GDP growth, urban industrial and service sector industries are not absorbing the large numbers of urban residents of working age. Some residents find low paid jobs in sectors such as security and domestic work, but still struggle to make ends meet. Many rely on starting their own small businesses or ‘piece jobs’ with low pay and no security.

The towns and cities attract people from across their countries and in many cases, especially in more stable and relatively wealthy countries, from further afield. This creates a dynamic social setting, but one that is also fraught with tensions that manifest in violence in extreme cases like the xenophobic attacks in South Africa and political, often also ethnic, conflicts that have erupted in cities and towns in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire.

Key challenges that those in poverty in African urban areas face today can be summarised as: generating incomes; achieving food and nutrition security; and building social cohesion.

An existing response

One activity that appears to respond well to these three challenges, and is found in every town and city, is street food vending. Preparing and selling street foods is an important income generating opportunity for many, especially for women and young people. The purchase of inputs by street food vendors also creates market and income opportunities for food producers and other suppliers to the sector. The availability of ready prepared street foods is an important source of nutrition, especially for people in crowded and precarious living situations, often without storage space or cooking equipment of their own. Importantly, many school children rely on street food vendors when at school. The street food vendor also creates a space around which people meet and share food, information and companionship.

Despite its ubiquitous nature, street food vending is under researched. FAO has recognized the importance and challenges of street food, but it is yet to be taken up more widely in policy and by government and NGO programmes. There is little information available on what is happening in the sector and less information to be found on programmes focussed on street food development. Much of the debate on street food is dominated by concerns about the negative impacts on hygiene, food safety, and the negative impacts on orderly urban planning. Undoubtedly current street food products and practices sometimes have negative outcomes, such as contributing to obesity. This is a serious concern especially when so many children use the sector. More needs to be done to overcome the negative effects, but perhaps more important is to give greater attention to maximising the potential of the sector.

The existence and resilience of the street food sector is an important opportunity in the context of too many development interventions that try to start new initiatives, which may look successful while the donor funds are flowing, but often disappear soon after the funds stop. Street food exists everywhere, despite lack of support and negatives attitudes from many city modernisers. Street foods will continue to exist and be important to millions of the poorer urban residents, therefore if the policy and regulatory environment can be more enabling and if improvements can be brought to street food practices, these will be sustained.

The intervention

Wageningen University is proposing to lead a four-year multi-country and multi-institution intervention in Eastern and Southern Africa that will: 1) greatly enhance the understanding of the street food sector; 2) produce a strategy for how the potential of the sector can be enhanced; and 3) promote the strategy and its recommendations to key opinion shapers and decision makers.

The goal is to contribute to achieving a street food sector in Eastern and Southern Africa that will better meet the challenges of generating incomes; achieving food and nutrition security; and building social cohesion in this fast urbanising part of the world. The focus is on achieving positive outcomes and will, in doing so, address the negative impacts of the sector as it currently operates.

The strategy to be developed will be based on the outcomes of the research to be conducted and will focus on improving: 1) knowledge; 2) technology; 3) organisation; 4) infrastructure; and 5) the regulatory environment. Knowledge needs to be improved among the actors in the sector and the regulators of it and cover all aspects from nutrition and food safety to the economic impact and potential. Technological interventions to be explored will be in areas of safe food preparation, storage and spatial planning. Organisational improvements will be proposed for the business operations, the organisation of the sector and its governance. Ideas for improving the infrastructure the sector uses and depends on will aim to create a physical environment conducive to better outcomes. Proposals for improved regulation will address bi-laws, town planning and national food and nutrition policy. Where relevant and based on experiences gained elsewhere, new cooking technologies will be developed in participatory ways, making use of local materials, knowledge and networks.  Recipes will be exchanged across borders and cultures to enrich existing food cultures. Constraining and enabling organisational, regulatory and physical structures will be probed and questioned with the people running and using them.

To achieve the above Wageningen University and its African partners are seeking resources for research, strategy development and advocacy in: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. A city in each country has been selected to be the focus of the research as they illustrate particular experiences. For example, Nakuru in Kenya is a medium-size city and currently the fastest growing in Africa, while the well-established inner city Johannesburg in South Africa is home to asylum seekers and economic migrants from across the continent who are struggling to find a place in this already deeply divided city with its outbreaks of xenophobic violence. Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Kampala in Uganda are already large and fast growing with vibrant ‘informal’ economies that provide much of the food. Harare in Zimbabwe has gone through massive economic collapse and now faces ongoing contestation over how the once relatively prosperous and highly regulated city should be organised. These cities and countries will benefit from the improved knowledge and proposed interventions that emerge from this project. These locations also represent a range of contexts which will contribute to rich learning that could be taken up elsewhere.

The research will be interdisciplinary involving PhD students, post-doctoral researchers and senior academic staff along with practitioners from organisations in the food and nutrition sector. The disciplinary expertise of those involved and the areas of analysis of the street food sector will cover: 1) Sociology; 2) Food technology; 3) Nutrition science; 4) Governance; and 5) Livelihoods. Issues of poverty, social differentiation, vulnerability and gender will be looked at across all parts of the project.

To ensure research into action the project will, from the beginning, involve and engage policy makers, development practitioners and actors in the sector as co-creators of the project and the knowledge and recommendations generated. These will come from institutions such as nutrition centres, municipalities and NGOs as well as the local vendors, cookers and eaters. The lessons and insights derived from this co-created knowledge will be promoted through the production of accessible materials, use of traditional and social media, and dialogue with key opinion shapers and decision makers. Advocacy around the findings and the strategy developed will involve organising, in collaboration with some of the key state and non-state actors, national level dialogues and a regional conference.

The target is to reach opinion shapers and decision makers including: FAO; WFP; SUN Alliance structures; influential NGOs; FANRPAN; producer and vendor groups; consumer organisations; key Municipalities; and relevant government departments and agencies from the food, nutrition and economic development sectors.

The implementers

Wageningen University has a rich history and base of experience in agriculture and food systems combining technical and social knowledge. It also has a multitude of existing partnerships with universities and other institutions around the world including in most countries in Africa. Wageningen University’s reputation, enhanced by ex-students in key positions, gives it access to government departments that will be engaged. Wageningen will draw on its own broad skills set and partner with local universities and implementing agencies from government and NGOs for this work.

Wageningen has already convened a workshop on street food with representatives from Egerton University in Kenya, Soikoine University in Tanzania, Makarere in Uganda, Chinoyi in Zimbabwe and Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique and others. The project summarised here was refined in that workshop.

We believe you could be interested in collaborating on this initiative and would welcome the opportunity to discuss the details with you.

Theory of Change Diagram


[1] http://www.fao.org/fcit/food-processing/street-foods/en/

See here the Report Street Foods Seminar Kenya December 2015