nairobi, kenya — An estimated 70 percent of Africa’s urban households buy food from informal sources, such as street vendors, kiosks, and traditional market sellers, recent studies have found.  

Now, the African Union and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), are joining forces to design the first-ever guidelines to help African governments improve food safety in informal food markets.

Starting Friday, these new guidelines will aim to help African governments engage with and improve regulatory oversight of  informal food markets, which are vital sources of affordable food and income for millions in Africa.

Silvia Alonso, an epidemiologist at the institute, said improving food safety in the informal markets will help improve the health of the people and the countries’ economies. 

“A large portion of those informal markets have been rather neglected,” said Alonso. “So, we felt that is a gap area that we need to start paying attention to. If we address food safety in informal markets, we are not only contributing to improving food safety across the continent, but also, indirectly, we will help with other outcomes and objectives, such as nutrition security, access to jobs, decent work, and equitable food systems.” 

The World Bank has reported that unhealthy practices in the informal markets cost African governments an estimated $16 billion in productivity losses annually.  

Contaminated foods cause at least 91 million illnesses and 137,000 deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization. 

The ILRI has embarked on training informal market food handlers and producers in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. 

Cecilia Chepkemoi, a milk vendor in Eldoret in the Rift Valley region, is one of hundreds of people trained in her area. Chepkemoi said she had very little knowledge of how to keep milk safe for consumption. 

“I only knew how it was about boiling the milk, not about the hygiene of the milk,” said Chepkemoi. “So after I went to the training with the ILRI, I now wash the cans with warm water, and I put the can outside to dry in the sun. After that, I pour the milk inside.” 

Alonso said working with governments and food handlers and producers is critical in keeping consumers healthy. 

“Our expectation is the guidelines will enable governments to support the informal sector within the expected parameters and requirements,” said Alonso. ” … So this can go from ensuring it’s not contaminated with biological substances, with bacteria, with viruses, but also that it is wholesome in the sense of not carrying chemicals.”  

African governments have destroyed and confiscated food items in the markets to deal with outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid and cholera. Experts say such forcible shutdowns are counterproductive. 

The three-month ILRI training has made Chepkemoi increase her sales and build good customer relationships. 

“It has given me confidence and increased sales because the rate at which the customers are buying milk from me has gone high,” Chepkemoi said. “And they have been confident in me because you find I even get orders from Nairobi. Even if I tell them, I don’t have the milk right now, you just wait until tomorrow. They’ll not go to another person. They will wait.” 

The consultation process on food safety in informal settings with member states will continue throughout 2024 and 2025. The document will be presented to African Union policy making bodies for approval next year. 

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