Big supermarkets and gleaming shopping malls are the poster children of what many city developers see as the modern African city. But working away feverishly in their shadow, often unrecognised and sometimes even maligned, is an industrious informal food economy that keeps our cities stocked with food and provides the jobs that give people the income they need to buy their own food. While supermarkets deepen their reach into our cities, often speeding up our dietary switch to packaged, nutritionally poor foods, the value of informal food traders goes largely unseen and often unsupported.
It started with what might seem like a relatively harmless eviction of a handful of Kitwe traders from the pavement at the front of a big retail chain store in the north Zambian town towards the end of 2016. They were forced to pack up their fresh produce stands and relocate to the Chisokone informal market a few blocks away.
The ‘before’ photograph captures a normal trading day, prior to their removal. The wide sun umbrellas that shade the traders, mostly women, are sun-bleached and tattered by the elements, but the traders’ produce is not: knee-high piles of green, crisp spinach leaves; plump red tomatoes; ivory-coloured onions; cabbages as large as soccer balls. A man in a suit stops to buy some groceries from a woman in a wraparound chitenge. It is an ordinary day in an ordinary African urban market economy.
In the ‘after’ photograph, the bustling traders have been replaced by a series of angled parking bays, where cars fill the space where the foot traffic, the vegetables, and the traders once were.
For the Kitwe municipality, this kind of trading was a blemish. Getting rid of the traders was in line with their ‘Keep Kitwe Clean’ campaign, aimed at polishing up downtown Kitwe as the local government tries to transform it into a modern African city, where supermarkets and shopping malls replace informal food traders.
The forced removal of a handful of Kitwe marketeers is not an isolated incident. In fact, it is just one small episode in a much wider and often less gentle manoeuvre against informal trading that is common in many African cities, as CUP researcher Caroline Skinner found when she began looking into the role of the informal food economy and officials’ attitudes towards it.
A few months before the businesswomen were moved from the front of the local Shoprite in downtown Kitwe with so little fanfare, an outbreak of cholera about 350 kilometres south in the capital, Lusaka, threw the state into panic. In an effort to quarantine the disease, the city turned on the informal market traders.
Cholera is a highly contagious bacterial disease, which is carried by water and food, and is linked with poor sanitation. Untreated, it can kill within hours. This particular outbreak started in the Kanyama informal settlement on the outskirts of Lusaka and quickly spread into the capital.
The Zambian government sprang into action, setting up temporary cholera treatment centres, starting a rapid immunisation drive, and shutting down public gatherings across the city, including in schools, at funerals and churches, and in the market places. According to an Al Jazeera news crew, the government regarded the informal markets as a breeding ground for cholera and closed them for business. At first, traders were cooperative, but within days tensions started mounting as stallholders began counting the cost of losing their livelihoods. They put their outdoor shops back up and started trading again. In response, the police demolished the stalls; the traders rioted; the police clamp-down escalated; the international news crews moved in.
Home Affairs minister Stephen Kampyongo went on air, saying how unfortunate it was that a “small clique of citizens can decide to break the law when so many citizens have been cooperative and helpful to the situation. I know these matters touch on people’s livelihoods, but these matters are also of life and death.”
The panic soon spilled over into Kitwe. “Cholera looming at Chisokone Market” claimed a shrill Zambia Daily Mail headline, stating that the open-air market, a trading area for some 15 000 stallholders, was a high-risk area owing to the “uncollected heaps of garbage and blocked drains where maggots were seen feasting on rotten tomatoes and vegetables which were ‘lying all over the place”. The first two cases of cholera were only reported in Kitwe in January 2018, but health and safety concerns around the market had already been flagged over a year earlier when Kitwe mayor Christopher Kang‘ombe toured the facility in November 2016 and found it to be no longer “habitable for trading due to the deteriorating infrastructure coupled with poor sanitation”.
Kang’ombe called for Kitwe to take similar measures to those in Lusaka, first banning all street sales of fresh foods such as meat, chicken, and fish in January 2018, according to the website Zambia Reports.
Next, roadside food sales were banned. Then, the city demolished more than 1 000 stalls in Chisokone Market. Finally, local government announced that the entire market would be shut down so that the municipality could clean it up, again justifying this as a way to avoid a cholera outbreak.
In the newspaper article, the city acknowledges its responsibility to improve infrastructure and service delivery to the market by upgrading drainage systems and refuse removal services, and improving the water supply to nearby toilets. But in the aftermath, there do not appear to have been any developments on this front.
Once the market was shutdown in early 2018, there was talk of replacing the facility with a US$145 million ‘two-storey, ultra-modern market place and bus station’.
“The outbreak of cholera… is a blessing in disguise because then it gives us a wake-up call to change the approach in addressing the issues,” Kitwe district commissioner Binwell Mpundu told the press. “At Chisokone Market, we will have to make very tough decisions, you will agree that when we decided to remove vendors from the Central Business District there was an uproar from marketeers on the decision we made, but today we are vindicated.”
By this stage, Kitwe health services had only recorded three cases of cholera in the city.
The rise of the supermarket in the past half century – those shops that specialise in groceries and household goods, and now operate largely as national or international chains with branches across the region – are a hallmark of the modern food system.
This model for food retailing has literally exploded into southern African cities in recent decades. Caroline Skinner, a specialist in informal economies, and her CUP colleague Dr Gareth Haysom did a headcount: in 2002, the South African supermarket chain Shoprite had 77 retail stores in 13 African countries, excluding those already operating in South Africa. By 2012, the chain had expanded to 168 stores in 18 countries. By August 2013, the chain had extended its reach “at the rate of one new store every two weeks to reach 193 outlets. Due to supermarket expansion, by 2013 there were 3 741 stores in sub-Saharan Africa”.
Supermarkets have not just mushroomed in middle-class suburbs in southern Africa, but are also spreading into lower-income communities. This should be a boon for the hungry urban poor, the theory goes, because supermarkets benefit from economies of scale and the heft of their purchasing power. They should be able to pass on their lower prices to the cash-strapped shopper.
The reality looks a bit different, though, argues Skinner, because supermarkets are often not catering for the realities that shape the buying habits of a poorer family.
Big chains might stock better-quality foods in places, but these are often more expensive than smaller independent retailers. Or their bulk items might be cheaper, gram for gram, but the volumes they are sold in still makes the single-item purchase too expensive for a poorer family.
In 2012, urban food geographer Dr Jane Battersby and her colleague Stephen Peyton took a closer look at the kinds of foods supermarkets were stocking in the stores operating in lower-income neighbourhoods around Cape Town. They found that these foods tended to be less healthy than in the stores operating in wealthier suburbs, meaning that poorer families did not necessarily have better access to nutritious foods as a result of the arrival of the supermarket chain in that neighbourhood. If anything, this accelerated the dietary shift towards cheaper, less healthy, highly processed and sugary foods, which is linked to a host of health complications (see Chapter 2: Big is Beautiful).
Is something similar happening in Epworth, Kisumu and Kitwe, the CUP researchers wanted to know? When they visited these cities, they wanted to see where people, particularly poorer families, were doing their grocery shopping: were they spending their money with the informal traders, or were they shopping down the supermarket aisle? What were they buying? And did their spending patterns confirm what most think they know about the food habits of urban Africans, or not? Here’s what they found. Supermarkets tend to stock staple foods in large volumes. They also have a bigger range of processed foods, particularly international branded products, and ‘Western’ cuts of meat. There are regional differences, of course, but the trends are similar: informal traders in Kisumu tend to stock mostly fresh foods, cereals and indigenous foods, while the supermarkets stock more processed foods.
However in Kitwe, supermarkets such as the Shoprite mentioned earlier in the trader eviction story are responding to customer needs by stocking the kinds of indigenous foods that previously were only sold outside by street side vendors.
The CUP researchers also found that when people in these neighbourhoods are grocery shopping, they use both kinds of retailers – supermarkets and informal traders – but at different times of the month, and for different reasons. But, overwhelmingly, poorer families rely more on informal retailers to buy their food.
People are not just doing most of their grocery shopping with street traders, they are also buying most of their take-away foods here. A similar previous study that looked at grocery-shopping habits in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Mali, South Africa, Uganda and Burkina Faso, found that adults got as much as half their daily food in the form of street foods (from 13% to 50%), and the figures were similar for children (they were getting from 13% to 40% of their food from street traders). Street foods account for up to half of people’s daily recommended protein intake in these communities.
From a public-health perspective, this matters. Local governments need to find ways to encourage people to eat street foods, writes Skinner, but with the proviso that they favour the consumption of healthy traditional foods.
These recent visits to Kisumu, Kitwe and Epworth confirm findings from a 2008 and 2009 study by the African Food Security Urban Network (AFSUN), where the University of Cape Town was a lead partner, which showed how dependent lower-income families are on informal trading. Looking at poorer families in 11 sub-Saharan African cities, the AFSUN study found that 70% of households get their food from informal outlets; and the bigger the food gap is in their homes, the more dependent they are on informal retailers. This is where people do most of their day-to-day or weekly shopping. But they are not using informal food outlets exclusively: more than three quarters of households (79%) said they also shop at their local supermarket, often once a month, to stock up on bulk staples.
The reality is that poorer families are still buying most of their day-to-day groceries and ready-to-eat foods from informal traders, while trying to benefit from the bulk-buying benefits of big formal shops when they can.
These shopping habits are not only driven by how much cash a family has at any given time of the month, though. The basic kitchen appliances people have at home, and whether or not they have running water and a working kitchen sink, or electricity, also drive their shopping behaviour.
Few poorer families have fridges at home, which means they can’t risk buying fresh and perishable foods in bulk. They therefore buy them on a daily basis and use them quickly before they spoil. Informal traders sell these types of foods in smaller quantities, and within walking distance of people’s homes, so families buy from them rather than the supermarkets.
Despite the growing reach of supermarkets, the big players have not replaced the many small informal traders in these communities. Time and again, the evidence from AFSUN and the CUP researchers confirms this: poorer households lean heavily on their local informal roadside trader and grocer for most of their food.
These independent and unlicensed traders are good at meeting their customers’ needs, partly because they are more agile than supermarkets. Open-air traders and informal markets have flexible and longer operating hours than the formal grocer shops. They set up shop close to where their main customers are, mostly where the foot traffic passes by in poorer neighbourhoods, as well as in city centres, often near shopping malls or supermarkets, and at key transport hubs such as taxi ranks and train stations. Informal stallholders often buy their stock in bigger volumes, sometimes even from supermarkets which they treat as wholesalers, and then ‘bulk break’ items of food down to smaller package sizes to sell at a price that meets the shopper’s tight budget (see Smaller is better for tight budgets). They are more likely to build personal relationships with their customers and often allow their regulars to buy on credit. They tend to restock their stalls quickly, which makes them look reliable and helps build trust, and many still sell mostly non-processed and fresh foods (although this may be changing).
A curious relationship is emerging between supermarket chains and the poorer families living in the neighbourhoods that these chains are targeting as part of their expansion into new markets.
Supermarkets aren’t always passing on the benefits of their bulk-buying power directly to poorer households (although informal traders might be doing so indirectly, by using supermarkets as wholesale suppliers and then bulk-breaking items down to smaller, more affordable units).
They aren’t bringing healthier, fresher produce into these communities at lower prices. They aren’t necessarily making these neighbourhoods more resilient against hunger or long-term malnutrition.
In fact, if anything, the CUP researchers have shown clearly over the years that supermarkets are, in one respect, undercutting the nutritional wellbeing in these communities by nudging people away from healthier, more diverse, traditional foods, towards an ‘industrial’ diet that looks aspirational and modern, but actually leaves so many people hungry, heavy, and sick.
How is this happening, though, if most people are still doing their grocery shopping with informal traders, who tend to sell more of the fresh or traditional foods?
According to Battersby, when people do shop in supermarkets for their occasional bulk-buy-ing of staples such as maize or oil, they’re exposed to ultra-processed foods. “This makes it more likely that these foods will be normalised for people, or even become something that they aspire to.”
This globalising of the food system is also beginning to spill over into the informal sector, she says, where packaged foods sometimes crowd out fresh fruit and veggies in some of the stalls on pavements and in open-air markets.
Returning to that image of the trader in her patterned chitenge skirt, captured in a momentary transaction with a businessman on the pavement in front of Shoprite in Kitwe: the exercise of mapping the food system in these three cities doesn’t only show that informal traders are a key part of the engine room that keeps the food system and the urban economy ticking over. According to Skinner, the informal food economy is also one of the largest employers in sub-Saharan Africa after the agricultural sector, where 53% of non-agricultural employment is in this part of the economy. Across the region, nearly two thirds of those who find work in the informal sector are women (59%). This boosts a family’s food access, not just by making sure that someone in a household is employed and has money to buy food.
More than that, Skinner says: when women are in charge of the household budget, they’re more likely to spend that money on food, further boosting a family’s likelihood of keeping hunger at bay.
In a city like Kisumu, for instance, where unemployment is now at about 30%, this often invisible part of the food system employs just over half (52%) of the city’s working population and “up to 70% of the working population in informal settlements”, according to the numbers coming through in the CUP surveys.
Informal operators are active throughout the food value chain. They are key to the processing and packaging that happens along the way, Skinner wrote in a paper for the CUP research team in November 2016, such as through small-scale catering, or bulk-breaking supplies into smaller packages. Informal transporters use taxis and small hired trucks to ship food around. Street and market traders, spaza shops, and home tuck shops are integral to the informal retail space. Long-standing practices of milling staples and grains such as maize or peanuts continue on the city streets, but now vendors are helping time-pressed customers even more by selling them pre-cooked beans, boiled milk, dried and smoked fish, cooked porridge, barbecued meats, and other cooked snacks. Informal restaurants and shebeens – unlicensed bars that also often sell food – make up the informal consumer space. Ready-to-eat street foods are convenient, cheap, and quite a big part of many urban Africans’ daily diet. And informal waste collectors and recyclers take care of the tail-end of the food system.
By the height of the Zambian cholera outbreak in January 2018, Lusaka-based Dr Gilbert Siame said he was throwing out about five tons of tomatoes in ten days because the markets in Lusaka had shut down and he had no way of selling his produce.
Siame wears two hats: he runs a small farm in Lusaka where he grows tomatoes and keeps pigs, but he’s also part of the CUP team and works as a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zambia, and he’s affiliated with the People’s Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia (PPHPZ), part of Slum Dwellers International (SDI) in Lusaka. He has an insider’s view on the question of urban informality, not only in the food sector, and in city settlements in general.
Siame’s crop losses show just how far along the food value chain the fallout has been for people’s livelihoods, beyond just the traders in the informal city markets whose stalls were shut down with the city’s efforts to quarantine the cholera outbreak. Back in Kitwe, though, when its mayor Christopher Kang’ombe toured the Chisokone Market in November 2016 and declared it unfit for trading, a local news photographer captured dramatic pictures of city officials picking their way around piles of uncollected garbage heaped up along the sides of the dirt roads weaving through the marketplace and clogging up stormwater drains. A government official told the press that the council would take care of the backed-up drains, improve garbage removal and make sure the public toilets had enough water.
Skinner says that concerns about sanitation in informal markets in Africa have long been used as a reason to shut them down and marginalise them from the local economy. One study that she reviewed counted more than 50 cases where street traders were evicted from their trading spaces in different African cities over a three-year period. This was happening in Cairo, Harare, Johannesburg, Lagos, and Luanda, where some evictions involved considerable force.
City officials used different ways to enforce these removals. Sometimes it involved ‘large-scale violent evictions’, where traders’ stands were demolished; in other cases, it was less violent and involved moving stallholders to places that were far from their customers or didn’t have supporting facilities; sometimes it involved “lower level harassment of vendors by predatory state officials, often facilitated by legislation”.
Planners and other city officials often see informal traders as ‘backward’, argue Battersby and colleague Prof Vanessa Watson. They’re viewed as a blight on the vision of the modern, developing African city, and as a source of ‘dirt’ and ‘disease’. This often results in policies and decisions that favour malls and supermarkets, giving them priority through planning, which allows developers to build gleaming new developments near the city centre or wealthier neighbourhoods, while leaving informal traders on the edge of the economy.
Yes, there are health risks associated with the informal markets. This is particularly true for those trading fresh or cooked foods such as meat, fish and milk, because they’re working with risky perishable foods in premises that often don’t have good facilities such as safe storage or adequate refrigeration. They may also not have clean running water, or ways to keep their facilities hygienic. Waste removal services might not be operating and the traders are dependent on the city to keep nearby public toilets clean and in good working order.
But the CUP team points out that the stall-holders aren’t responsible for putting these sorts of services in place. Rather, it is the role of the city to keep these trading spaces clean, serviced and sanitary.
From Siame’s perspective as both a supplier of fresh produce into Lusaka’s food system and as an academic studying it, he says the process of addressing the cholera crisis in Lusaka was fraught with confusion and misdirected effort. The challenges, in his opinion, were about broader issues around the politics of water management, rather than the informal food system which was blamed for the outbreak.
“Right now, we have hundreds of thousands of people in the city who are still using water from shallow wells, because they don’t have access to the treated water supply,” he wrote to his colleagues in January 2018, “and this well water is said to be contaminated by the cholera bacteria. But it’s also rumoured and widely circulated on social media that the municipal water supply in Lusaka is contaminated with cholera, too.”
This could explain why some formal food outlets in the capital also had to be shut down. Shops such as the Hungry Lion on Cairo Road and at Kulima Tower were closed. A few take- away joints were closed in the Levy Mall, including an Asian Hut, a Wimpy, and a Hungry Lion. The Kumushi Restaurant at the showgrounds also had its doors closed for a time.
Both the formal and informal food systems in Lusaka were affected. There was speculation that this could be because these facilities were using contaminated water, or that the staff handling the food in the restaurants might have come from cholera-affected areas, mostly informal settlements. “Or it could be a combination of both factors,” says Siame.
There were unconfirmed reports that lab tests might have shown that the municipal water system was positive for the cholera bacteria. “There’s a lot of politicking at the moment, because water supply is a government issue. People in Lusaka are directing their anger at government, local and national, for repeated poor service levels in the water sector.”
Government’s response, he says, has been to try and distance itself from this responsibility, and stem any likely uprising by food vendors.
“This is causing a real economic crisis. Millions of people have been cut off from their livelihood,” he wrote in January 2018. “We’re throwing away all these tomatoes, because of this. Our farm has been doing great, but now we have nowhere to sell our produce as markets are closed and guarded by the military.”
Early in 2017, an outbreak of the food-borne illness listeriosis in South Africa shook the local food industry. This form of food poisoning is caused by a particularly hardy listeria bacteria – one that can survive even in refrigerated and zero-oxygen environments – and causes symptoms similar to flu or meningitis.
By mid-May 2018, the state’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) confirmed a total of 1 039 cases of the disease and 200 deaths.
Most of these cases were linked to a meat processing plant in Polokwane province, owned by the corporate giant Tiger Brands. The higher-risk foods produced by this facility are various ready-to-eat processed meats, such as polony and sausages, which generally are not heated before eating, meaning bacteria won’t be killed off by high temperatures.
Genetic testing linked about 90% of the reported cases with this single facility, and while Tiger Brands initially contested the claims, it eventually acknowledged that its plant, where the brand Enterprise is produced, was the source of the contamination.
The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that this was the largest outbreak of the disease ever recorded globally.
“This case shows up something curious about the food system,” says CUP’s Dr Jane Battersby. “The formal food sector is supposedly so tightly controlled, regulated and monitored for food safety, yet this is where the outbreak came from.”
This challenges the assumption that food from the formal sector is safe, while food from the informal sector is supposedly unsafe.
“When it comes to testing for food safety, the informal sector is very easy to access, but the formal food sector often closes off access for inspection,” Battersby explains. “This shows that there’s actually a lack of transparency and access of the formal sector to test for food safety.”
The Zambia cholera story is the counterpoint to this, she says.
“In the case of the cholera outbreak, informal traders were blamed for the disease. But as our colleague Dr Gilbert Siame explains, it was actually a problem with the water system, which is a municipal function. It wasn’t the traders who were the source of the outbreak.”
In March 2018, South Africa’s Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies criticised big business for resisting efforts by the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS), four years earlier, to introduce compulsory safety standards for processed meats.
A shortage of environmental health inspectors also lies at the heart of the problem. In the South African context, this is the function of local government, but there is now a shortage of 3 300 such officers, according to the country’s Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. In response to the listeriosis outbreak, Motsoaledi called for the health safety responsibilities to be handed back to the national health department so that it could ensure better enforcement.
Most poor families can’t afford to bulk-buy when they do their grocery shopping, because they don’t have the cash, or they don’t have a fridge at home and they can’t afford to have food standing about and spoiling. They tend to buy smaller quantities of food on a day-to-day basis.
Informal traders meet this need by ‘bulk-breaking’: buying regular-sized products of maize meal or rice, for instance, and repackaging them in smaller units.
This food might work out to be more expensive, gram for gram, relative to that sold in a local supermarket, but cash-strapped families can afford to buy it in smaller units.
“This shows up the need for families to be able to buy smaller units that are more in line with their incomes, or the infrastructure realities at home,” explains CUP’s Dr Jane Battersby.
Kitwe retailers have started bulk-breaking, too, in response to their customers’ needs, and found they now get higher patronage as a result.
Robyn Bowden is an independent food systems researcher who conducted this study as part of a master’s degree with the Sustainability Institute, Stellenbosch.
Many shops and some informal traders in South Africa put together monthly hampers, also known as ‘combos’, for people wanting to buy in bulk. These hampers are usually made up of long-lasting foods that people generally buy at the beginning of the month when they receive their grants and monthly salaries. While the contents of each hamper vary from shop to shop, a standard hamper consists of the ‘big five’: a 10-kilogram pack of white rice, maize meal, sugar and flour, and two litres of cooking oil. Although both formal and informal retailers put these hampers together, the contents originate from Big Food companies.
The hampers are nutritionally poor, but they do ensure satiety for a household through the month. For women, who are generally in charge of food, hampers allow them to control household expenditure. By buying hampers at the beginning of the month, they can ensure that income is spent primarily on food before it can be spent on other less important items, such as clothing, airtime, or alcohol. Extra income earned throughout the month through informal work allows women to add to these hampers with more nutritious foods, such as vegetables or meat.
The large size and weight of hampers makes them difficult to transport. Taxis charge a fare per 10 kilograms of food transported, which adds substantially to the cost of the hamper. While both formal and informal retailers sell hampers for competitively similar prices, the distributed nature of informal retailers allows women to buy these hampers close to their homes and avoid the additional transport costs.