The world is watching West Africa as it fights the spread of Ebola. But in Ghana a different struggle is going unnoticed by the international community – a cholera crisis. In an attempt to stop the spread of the epidemic the Ghana Health Service has called for a ban on all street food vending.

Since the outbreak in June, more than 11,000 cases of infection and 100 deaths have been recorded. The capital, Accra, has been most heavily hit. According to the health service, most of the cholera patients interviewed were infected from eating food sold on the streets. These foods are prepared in unsanitary conditions – at home, in slums or on roadsides, and exposed to pollution, open sewers and uncollected refuse. The workforce, often only with secondary-level education or less, is mostly ignorant of the sanitary bylaws and has insufficient food hygiene training. Around 18% of vendors do not have a licence.

Enforcing the ban will be a challenge – approximately 60,000 street food vendors operate in Accra – but this action is deemed essential to Ghana’s mission to “rid the capital of filth”.

In this campaign, there is no mention of the failure of the state to provide safe drinking water, adequate sewage and waste disposal systems. Or to provide sufficient information or training for vendors. As you look closer at the socio-economic profile of vendors and their customers, this attack on cholera starts to look more like an attack on the poor.

There has been a proliferation of street food in West Africa over the past five decades, brought about by the rapid growth of cities. Africa is experiencing the fastest rate of urbanisation in the world at 3.5% per year. Feeding these millions of urbanites is nothing short of a miracle. Carolyn Steele, in her book Hungry City, shines a light on the often over-looked urban food system:

“When you consider that every day in London, enough food for thirty million meals must be produced, imported, sold, cooked, eaten and disposed of again, and that something similar must happen every day for every city on earth, it is remarkable that those of us living in them get to eat at all.”

Food security in cities is more a matter of access to food than the availability of food. And street food in developing cities is the people’s answer to food security, simultaneously providing the most affordable and accessible means to a nutritious on-the-go meal.

Rapid urbanisation follows a familiar pattern all over the world – impoverished rural communities migrate to the cities looking for work, often finding very little formal employment. Chaotic living conditions develop to house this burgeoning population. Inadequate infrastructure buckles under the strain as local authorities struggle to keep up with migration. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has observed in West Africa that “services and infrastructure cannot keep the pace with the increasing food demand of the population and this leaves room for the informal food sector to fill the gap and thrive”.

Stefano Marras, president of Street Food Square and co-editor of the recently published Street Food: Culture, Economy, Health and Governance, explains that “street food provides a regular source of income for millions of men and women with limited financial, social, and cultural capital”. In Accra this informal army of stalwart food hawkers is mostly comprised of women (95%) who turn their traditional domestic role into a micro-enterprise. The global research and policy network, Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO), found in their 2013 study that Accra street vendors “face exposure to high economic and financial risks, job insecurity, unsafe and unhygienic working conditions, harassment from local authorities, and lack of access to credit”.

While there have been efforts to implement policies and laws to protect vendors, research by the FAO found that gender bias plays a major role in the lack of willingness to grant rights to this predominantly female sector. And now, in Ghana, women are the perfect candidates for a cholera scapegoat.

Despite these struggles, street food offers us so much that is worth preserving. In Accra, it’s still significantly cheaper than formal eateries and multinational fast-food outlets such as McDonalds and KFC. Street food vendors offer a home-cooked meal that is cheaper and more convenient than buying all the ingredients and cooking it yourself. And much of their produce is locally sourced. Marras’ extensive research has found that the majority of street food vendors also produce their own vegetables or fruit – “a part of it they consume at home and part they use for sale. So there’s a lot of vendors who actually grow their own food or raise cattle.” This is echoed by Mohammed Ag Benech, Senior Nutrition Officer for FAO, West Africa. “Street food represent[s] a unique source of healthy food, especially fruits and vegetables, for underprivileged people.” The 2012 FAO report found that street food vendors in West Africa were “mostly relying on local produce as a source of ingredients”.

So street food also offers us an alternative to a global economy that favours multinational corporations and industrialised food systems at the expense of communities, the environment and our health.

Over in London, the street food scene looks very different: queues of suited city workers buy pricey gourmet burgers or burritos on their lunch breaks. Amongst the overflowing platter of lunchtime choices, street food provides for the tastes and higher budgets of the middle classes, whereas fast food and highly-processed supermarket foods are still the cheapest option. These foods, low in nutritional content, high in fat, sugar and salt are leading to widespread obesity, diabetes and heart disease problems and it’s the poor that are hit the hardest.

There is a niche here for street food vendors to improve urban diets while supporting local food production. To secure this place in the urban food landscape street vendors need to be formalised and supported to make their food safer. India, also with a thriving street food industry, provides us with a story of success in formalising street food. In 1998 The National Association of Street Food Vendors of India (NASVI) was formed in response to decades of persecution, harassment and corruption from the authorities. It unified street vendor organisations and instigated widespread national action and campaigning. This year, they achieved their biggest victory yet: the Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending Act, 2014. In Delhi, the gastronomic capital of India, this has led to an extensive food safety training programme for vendors and the creation of “safe zones” for street food. The municipal corporation has committed to providing these safe zones with potable water and appropriate waste disposal so that the newly trained vendors have the facilities needed to carry out safe food practices. There is still much work to be done to implement the act, but it’s a starting point.

Given the rights they deserve, street food vendors can provide affordable, nutritious and sustainable food for cities. A lot more research needs to be done and Marras is leading the way. He has just launched a new study of urban agriculture and street food. In partnership with the University of Milan and the Milan Expo 2015, he is building a model for a strategic coalition between street food vendors and urban and peri-urban agriculture. He hopes this will not only prove street food’s part in creating food security, but carve out a new direction and rebuild consumer trust.

In the grey area between the formal and informal, the public and private realm, street food vendors represent much more than a tasty roadside snack. They are the embodiment of small-scale localised economies. They represent the potential empowerment of women and the poor. They may also provide a model for a better kind of fast food that is healthy and sustainable.

Featured image by Elvert Barnes, in text image by IITA

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