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Street foods in developing countries: lessons from Asia

F.G. Winarno and A. Allain

F.G. Winarno is with the Food Technology Development Centre, Bogor Agricultural University, PO Box 61, Bogor, Indonesia. Annelies Allain is a consultant with the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU), PO Box 1045, Penang, Malaysia. Research Project on Street Foods.

Defining street foods and fast foods
Street foods' role in the economy
Street foods and consumers
Problems and constraints

Street food vendors may be located outdoors or under a roof which is easily accessible from the street - Les vendeurs ambulants peuvent être installés en plein air ou sous un toit facilement accessible depuis la rue - Los vendedores ambulantes de alimentos se instalan en la calle o bajo un tejado, en un lugar fácilmente accesible en la calle

Urban population growth has stimulated a rise in the number of street food vendors1 in many cities throughout the world. Migration from rural areas to urban centres has created a daily need among many working people to eat outside the home. Demand for relatively inexpensive, ready-to-eat food has increased as people, especially women, have less time to prepare meals.

[1 Street food vendors are also known as hawkers or sellers.]

In some parts of Europe and North America street foods, which originated in Asia, Latin America and Africa, have become an integral part of the local food scene. At the same time, one cannot ignore the tremendous expansion of the major fast food companies. While consumers in industrialized countries are increasingly fascinated by "traditional" or "ethnic" foods, many in developing countries seem to be succumbing to the "hamburger assault".

Defining street foods and fast foods

The term "street foods" describes a wide range of ready-to-eat foods and beverages sold and sometimes prepared in public places, notably streets.2 Like fast foods, the final preparation of street foods occurs when the customer orders the meal which can be consumed where it is purchased or taken away. Street foods and fast foods are low in cost compared with restaurant meals and offer an attractive alternative to home-cooked food. In spite of these similarities, street food and fast food enterprises differ in variety, environment, marketing techniques and ownership.

[2 This definition of street foods was agreed upon by the FAO Regional Workshop on Street Foods in Asia, held in Jogjakarta, Indonesia in 1986 (Winarno, 1986).]

Street foods often reflect traditional local cultures and exist in an endless variety. There is much diversity in the raw materials as well as in the preparation of street food beverages, snacks and meals. Vendors' stalls are usually located outdoors or under a roof which is easily accessible from the street. They have low-cost seating facilities which are sometimes rudimentary. Their marketing success depends exclusively on location and word-of-mouth promotion. Street food businesses 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.

By contrast, fast food outlets specialize in fewer foods which are usually prepared by frying. Hamburgers, chicken, chips and pizza often predominate. These enterprises, which are usually indoors, invest heavily in seating, air conditioning and bright decor. Marketing strategies are almost exclusively dependent on advertising, sponsorship and special offers which aim to create brand loyalty. Owners usually have a franchise arrangement with a transnational company which also controls the provision of raw materials, the menu and the mode of preparation. Profits from sales generated by foreign-controlled fast food chains often leave the country.

Street foods' role in the economy

Street food micro-industries are vital for the economic planning and development of many towns. The contribution of street food vendors to the economies of developing countries has been vastly underestimated and neglected. However, statistics for some places do exist. In the Indonesian city of Bogor annual sales of street foods amount to US$67 million (Cohen, 1986). If one computes the average daily sales of the 100 000 (by conservative estimate) stalls in Malaysia, annual street food sales amount to US$2.2 billion (Allain, 1988). This is a relatively significant figure considering that most of the earnings are generated locally and thereby promote economic self-sufficiency.

The significance of the street food industry has often been ignored because it is considered part of the informal sector.3 Previously, the informal sector was thought to symbolize a lack of economic development that would and should disappear with modernization. Until more permanent jobs could be provided by the modern sector, the former was expected to absorb unskilled workers who migrated to the city from rural areas (Todaro, 1969).

[3 The term "informal sector" has been widely applied to describe loosely organized and often non-enumerated economic activities in the rapidly growing cities of the developing world. Actually, the division between the informal and formal sectors is not always obvious. Suppliers and consumers may "cross sectors" to exchange goods and individuals may be active in both formal and informal economic endeavours.]

However, this phenomenon has lasted longer and may be less transitional in nature than previously anticipated. The informal sector appears to be growing more rapidly than the formal sector in the urban areas of many countries (Farbman, 1980). Because of the rapid rise in urban populations and increasing awareness of the limited employment generated by large-scale industries, planners are beginning to acknowledge the importance of the informal sector.

Street foods create employment

Each street food enterprise is generally small in size, requires relatively simple skills, basic facilities and small amounts of capital, yet they are very numerous and have considerable potential for generating income and employment. Bogor, with a population of 250 000, has 18000 street food enterprises, nearly one for every 14 people. Roughly 26 percent of workers active in the informal sector in Bogor are directly employed as street food vendors (Chapman, 1984). Similarly, the International Labour Organisation has found that street vendors comprise 29 percent of the active urban labour force in Central America (Allain, 1988).

Some of those who, because of economic and social changes or individual characteristics, have difficulty obtaining jobs in the formal sector find work in the street food industry. The street food operation often involves entire families in the procurement of raw materials, preparation and cooking as well as the sale of food. Worldwide, women play a very large role In the street food industry. Surveys have found women to be involved in 90 percent of enterprises in the Philippines, 53 percent in Senegal and 40 percent in Indonesia (Tinker and Cohen, 1985).

Street food sellers are attracted to this occupation because of the possibility of earning relatively high incomes. 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. In Malaysia, net incomes varying, from US$4 to $36 (with an average of $16 per day) are derived from daily sales ranging in value from $10 to $120 (Andringa and Kies, 1989).

The relatively low capital expenditures of street food businesses are also attractive for certain types of sellers. Furthermore, vendors can choose their work hours, they have few constraints on their movements and are self-employed. In spite of the benefits of street food trade, vendors may have to work long hours under adverse conditions and the risks are borne exclusively by the seller. Vendors can face problems with local officials and may also have to deal with criminals who try to extort "protection money" from them. In. addition, their profession is often considered to be of low status.

Street foods and consumers

Customers from various economic strata benefit from nutritious, low-cost meals. In Africa and Asia, urban households spend 15 to 50 percent of their food budgets on street foods (Cohen, 1986). Many people in Asia prefer to make frequent small purchases at convenient locations. Those with little or no income depend almost exclusively on food supplied by street food vendors. Street foods are a bargain for customers when the demands of time and costs of food, fuel, cooking equipment and transportation are taken into account (Barth, 1983; Allain, 1988).

The consumer's limited purchasing power and competition by fellow hawkers lead to relatively low mark-ups (averaging 40 percent) on street foods (Barth, 1983). Vendors can often provide items at lower prices than other retailers since they have lower rent and capital equipment expenses. Because ingredients are bought in large quantities and at the cheapest markets, the cost of a single serving is quite competitive with home cooking and often less expensive because vendors cater for numerous consumers. Street foods can be an excellent value for consumers if they have easy access to stalls; there is fair competition; overheads are kept low; sanitary conditions are acceptable; and the nutritional value of meals is high.

Availability and accessibility rather than individual income or stage of national development seem to determine street food consumption patterns. The purchase of street foods is not confined to poor households nor are there higher levels of consumption in low-income countries. For the low-income worker, street foods and snacks are essential. In many countries, workers as well as students have their first meal of the day from street food vendors. Although in-depth nutritional studies related to street foods have not yet been completed, it is believed that many low-income families would be worse off if there were no street food vendors to serve fast, inexpensive foods.

Consumers who are attracted by convenience and low prices may overlook aspects of hygiene or sanitation. In some cases, these customers lack an understanding of proper food-handling practices and the potential for foodborne diseases. A joint Netherlands/Indonesia research project on street foods (1988-1992) reports that chemical analyses have show in street foods to have positive and negative aspects. It was reported that the average energy content of street foods ranges from five to 679 calories per 100 grams. It is estimated that the recommended daily energy intake can be met by consuming street foods which cost approximately US$1 (Street Food Project Report No. 2, 1990). Several foods such as boiled and fried peanuts, fried tempeh and fried tofu4 are good sources of protein and fat as are foods of animal origin such as chicken barbecue, mutton barbecue, fried fish and other local meat and fish dishes. If such foods are complemented by others, one can testify as to the good nutritional value and quality of street foods.

[4 Tempeh is fermented soybean cake and tofu is soybean curd.]

Worldwide, women play a great role in preparing, marketing and selling street foods - Dans le monde entier, les femmes jouent un rôle important dans la préparation et la vente des aliments dans la rue - Las mujeres desempeñan en todo el mundo una importante función en la preparación y la venta de alimentos en las calles

Availability and accessibility rather than individual income or stage of national development determine street food consumption patterns - La structure de la consommation d'aliments vendus dans la rue est déterminée par la disponibilité et l'accessibilité de ces articles plutôt que par le revenu individuel ou te stade de développement national - La disponibilidad y accesibilidad, más que los ingresos individuales o la fase de desarrollo nacional, son los elementos que determinan los modelos de consumo de alimentos vendidos en la calle

A total dietary study among 37 male and ten female students, ranging in age from 18 to 24 years, was conducted in Bogor. The economic levels of the participants' households varied but all students had diets consisting largely of street food. Using diary recordings, total daily food consumption data were collected for a 14-day period. Sixty-three percent of the students' monthly expenditures were allocated to street foods. The study found that street foods constituted the largest part of total energy intake (78 percent), accounting for 82 and 79 percent, respectively, of total protein and iron intake. These data may indicate that street foods play a major role in the overall diet for students in Indonesia (Street Food Project Report No. 3, 1990).

The report also discussed the use of additives such as the unauthorized colouring agents rhodamine B and methanal yellow which are still widely used by street food producers in Indonesia. Similarly, prohibited synthetic sweeteners are frequently used to adulterate drinks sold on the street. Contamination of street foods is another problem: there were reports of lead contamination (1,0 - 9,63 ppm), for instance, while 17 percent of street foods containing peanuts were found to be contaminated with aflatoxins at levels above 30 ppb, the safety margin set by FAO/WHO guidelines (Street Food Project Report No. 2, 1990). Pesticide residues above authorized levels were also detected in street foods, particularly in vegetable-based products. It should be noted that this is not a problem for street foods exclusively; home-cooked meals are likely to contain the same concentrations of pesticide residues.

The health risk of food is not only determined by the concentration of various additives and contaminants in a food product, but also by the cumulative daily intake of a certain contaminant or additive throughout a consumer's diet. Although some street foods have been found to be contaminated and serious illnesses have been related to them, in general very few cases of food poisoning have been found. A survey involving 135 street foods in Iloilo, the Philippines found that only one item caused diarrhoea among the study participants (Tinker, 1987). It may be that illnesses occur but are not reported to medical authorities. It has also been suggested that individuals develop immunities to foodborne diseases, although detailed studies are needed to confirm immunity development.

The site where street foods are prepared and sold affects their safety significantly; access to a safe water supply can greatly improve food hygiene - L'innocuité des aliments vendus dans la rue dépend dans une mesure notable du lieu où ils sont préparés et vendus; elle peut être grandement améliorée par l'accès à une source d'eau potable - El lugar donde se preparan y venden los alimentos en la calle afecta considerablemente a la inocuidad de esos alimentos; el acceso al abastecimiento de agua potable puede mejorar en gran medida la inocuidad de los alimentos

It was also reported that drinks sold by stationary vendors are generally better than those sold by ambulatory vendors. Similarly, the microbiological quality of drinks sold in wealthier socio-economic areas is higher than those sold in crowded slums. Microbiological quality is directly related to the quality of the water available to vendors to prepare drinks. Access to a safe water supply goes a long way toward promoting food safety while the location in which street foods are prepared and sold significantly affects their safety.

Snacks which are fried or baked during preparation are considered to be safe foods since they are usually consumed without delay. Exceptions are snacks with a high water content such as asinan and rujaks Both Indonesian foods present high risks because of contamination by pathogenic bacteria. Foods served hot, such as noodles, meat balls, soto6 and so on are considered to be safe foods, while cold meals such as rice and vegetable dishes mixed together are classed as "high risk" foods from a microbiological perspective. Most meals which contain peanut sauce or coconut milk are considered to pose especially high risks.

[5 Asinan is a mixture of fruits and raw or fermented vegetables with a sour sauce. Rujak is a mixture of fruits with a spicy or sweet sauce.

6 Soto is soup which sometimes contains coconut milk.]

Problems and constraints

The innumerable street food industries involve huge amounts of capital and millions of people yet they are often not given the official recognition they deserve. In many countries the street food industry is merely tolerated. Because the industry is spread over a myriad of locations and is not systematically coordinated in any way, it is common for clusters of vendors to be considered impediments to urban planning and hazards to public health.

The negative attitude of officials toward street food vendors frequently reflects concerns about poor hygiene and the spread of disease. Lacking staff to enforce rules and regulations, governments have difficulty monitoring street food enterprises. These businesses may be seen as a hindrance to the "modernization" of the traditional food distribution system because they compete with licensed eating establishments that have considerably higher operating costs. Furthermore, there is the weak assumption that, in food processing, bigger is better. Finally, vendors may obstruct traffic in the centres of increasingly congested cities. This has led some governments to attempt to remove vendors from certain sections of a city, usually without success.

Vast street food industries involve high amounts of capital and millions of people, yet they are often not given the official recognition they deserve - L'énorme secteur des aliments vendus dans la rue met en jeu des capitaux importants et fait travailler des millions de personnes, mais la reconnaissance officielle qu'il mérite lui est souvent refusée - Las industrias de alimentos vendidos en las calles movilizan grandes cantidades de capital y millones de personas; pese a ello, a menudo nose les acredita una consideración oficial


The International Expert Consultation on Street Foods, held in Jogjakarta in 1988 assessed the positive and negative aspects of street food and concluded that, in general, the socio-economic significance of street foods had been ignored. Before any regulation can be established for street vendors, the local authorities need to recognize the importance of street foods. The ability of vendors to produce cheap and nutritious, traditional meals must be safeguarded, encouraged and assisted. Rules and regulations for safe food manufacturing need to be enforced and information and education must provide the basis for enforcement.

There is a mistaken assumption that food contamination is inevitable in street foods, yet millions of people depend on this source of nutrition. Vendors know that consumers watch the way food is prepared and notice whether the work area and vendor's hands and clothes are clean and tidy. They have everything to gain by appealing to customers with improved practices learned through training in nutrition and hygiene. Acknowledgement of the need for research and assistance to improve the standards of street food activities is needed.

Current benefits and problems of street foods - Secteur des aliments vendus sur la voie publique: avantages et inconvénients - Sector de venta callejera de alimentos: ventajas e inconvenientes



Use of local resources

Poor hygiene

Employment opportunities

Not a recognized industry

Adequate earnings for vendors

Lack of social status

Varied and nutritious food

Complex or non-existent licensing systems

Inexpensive, accessible service

Quality upgraded by licensing and inspection

Ineffective and arbitrary inspection

__w15 Social needs met

Traffic congestion aggravated

Regulations can make street food safer: Once policy-makers have decided that street foods are here to stay, there are innumerable small ways to make life easier for both vendors and inspectors while ensuring that food is safer for the consumer. Fair licensing and inspections, combined with educational drives, are the best long-term measures to safeguard the public. Regulations for ndors should be realistic, attainable and properly enforced; prohibiting the street food trade or setting impossible requirements drives vendors to practise unsanitary measures secretly, thus lessening control even more. It has been suggested that safety controls would be more attractive and better implemented if vendors who exercised particular care were rewarded. Small credit funds could help vendors renew or improve their stalls. For example, aluminum table tops could replace wooden boards which are very difficult to clean.

Customers and consumer organizations also have a role to play in association with government authorities, vendors' associations and scientists. Participation and advocacy by consumers can help to prevent foodborne diseases. Better consumer information and education regarding food hygiene can help authorities to take quick remedial action and preventive measures.

The consumer's needs should be taken into account when establishing policies and regulations. By implementing policies which help street food trade, low-income consumers are favoured. For example, more licenses might be allowed for vendors selling low-cost, nutritionally sound foods or for those with good records of hygiene. Restraining permits can be created for the sale of foods that have negative consequences. Street foods deserve the attention of policy-makers and vendors should be given opportunities to improve their situation and develop their enterprises into city food establishments.

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