A recent FAO study has found that more than 90 percent of street food vendors in Ghana are women. This finding is rooted in sociocultural norms, with low-income women and single mothers obliged to balance their traditional housekeeping duties with income-generating jobs. In Accra, Ghana’s capital, street food not only provides both an economic opportunity for women but also a way of improving livelihoods and urban food systems – Accra’s street food has been found to be both nutritious and safe, despite public perceptions. Now, building on local government support and training conducted over recent years, FAO is working to increase street food vendors’ knowledge to further improve nutrition and food safety for city-dwellers, while continuing to provide income-generating opportunities for women.
A major 2016 FAO study has found that street food vending in Ghana is dominated by women. The extensive field survey reveals that of the estimated 8 000 to 10 000 street food vendors in Accra, Ghana’s capital, at least 90 percent are women. These women are predominantly between the ages of 25 and 45, and almost all of them rely on personal or family money to fund their enterprises.
Street food vending is a time-consuming business – vendors generally work six days a week, 10 hours a day, not counting time spent buying and preparing ingredients. And those interviewed for the FAO survey have been working as street food vendors on average for eight years, suggesting that the sector is not only a temporary source of income but also a long-term employment option.
Street food stories from Accra
Twenty-seven year-old Comfort is a prime example of a contemporary Accra street food vendor. Despite having a degree, she struggled to find a job after university, and so, she says, “I chose to cook because it is my passion”. Comfort now wakes up at 5 a.m. every day, goes to the market to buy ingredients and opens her kiosk at 8 a.m. She sells a whole range of food but her favorite is cake. “What makes me happy is cooking and baking cakes!”, she laughs. To help her business, Comfort has even designed her own eye-catching brand and logo. Like any true entrepreneur, she knows that the image of her business is as important as the taste of her food.
Thirty-two year-old Esther says the hardest part of her job is getting up at 2 a.m. The mother of two starts selling ready-to-eat fruits from her stall in Accra every morning at 5 a.m. Esther says she sells fruits because they “are healthy food and clients like them”. Wearing plastic bags on her hands as gloves, she first washes a sharp knife with water gushing from a polyethylene bag (known in Ghana as “pure water”). Then, holding a clump of leaves, she takes a pineapple and peels it before cutting it into small pieces that fall into container. Cubes of mango, banana, watermelon and apple duly follow, before Esther finally closes and secures the container, ready to hand it over to a customer with a thank you and a smile.
Hamida’s menu focuses on local dishes: banku, jollof rice, tuo zafi, wakey, beef stew with eggs, shito, fried chicken and fish. The 32 year-old prepares all her food at home before bringing it to her stall in shiny pans and coolers and dishing it out into small plates with recyclable cutlery. When she is not serving, she sits and talks to customers at plastic tables while nursing her baby. Then at 2 p.m., her sister takes over, and Hamida leaves with her baby wrapped in a shawl tied to her back, followed by her two older children.
The stories of Comfort, Esther, and Hamida are commonplace across Africa, where the selling of street food has proliferated in the last 35 years, mainly due to urbanization and its effects.
On the one hand, increased commuting distances and fast urban living have driven demand for easily accessible ready-to-eat and cheap food among African urban dwellers.
On the other hand, the labour market has become more competitive, meaning marginalized social groups such as women and ethnic minorities struggle to find jobs because of lack of education and professional skills. For these people, self-employment often becomes the only way to earn a living.
As street food vending requires little start-up capital and no formal education, it represents an ideal opportunity for women. With their cooking skills and kitchen utensils and the help of unpaid family members – in particular young daughters and sisters – it is one of the easiest ways for them to be self-employed. And this is the main reason why women dominate the street food vending business in most of Africa, apart from in countries where women’s economic activities are restricted.
Nutritious and safe street food
The FAO study in Accra has highlighted how street food vendors tend to operate in poorer areas of the city and near schools, meaning many poor children rely on them for nutrition. Thankfully, the overall hygiene and safety conditions under which street food is prepared in Accra have proven to be of an acceptable standard. This is despite street food vendors not being subject to food controls by public authorities.
Regardless, vendors have shown a real improvement in knowledge of hygiene, safety standards, food handling, and storage in recent years. Factors contributing to the improvement include rising levels of education and increased collaboration between local authorities and FAO.
In 2012-13, FAO teamed up with the Ghana Food and Drug Authority to conduct successful capacity building sessions on handling and storage for selected food vendors. These sessions dealt with challenges such as poor infrastructure and lack of fresh water. More recently, in 2016, FAO trained 14 research assistants from the School of Public Health of the University of Ghana in “Mobile-Based Data Collection for Monitoring Street Food Vending in Urban Areas”. This training laid a great foundation in digital data collection techniques and methodology for Ghana’s future national food inspectors.
Finally, on the back of awareness campaigns targeting the general public, Ghana’s consumers have also become more knowledgeable and demanding, forcing vendors to adopt improved practices and higher hygiene standards to satisfy ever greater public scrutiny.