John Wambugu/Africa Lead

Unsafe Food: Africa’s Silent Killer

“Your food is supposed to be your medicine and your medicine is supposed to be your food.”

“If you give bad food to your stomach, it drums for you to dance.”

These African proverbs underscore a simple yet critical fact: what we eat determines what our bodies become. The common saying “we are what we eat” is indeed not far from the truth. Whenever we fall sick, among the first areas of diagnosis is usually what we have ingested. In the same vein, among key aspects for patient recovery and improvement is food.

What are we really eating?

In sub-Saharan Africa, urbanisation is occurring at a rate of 3.6% – a rate that is almost double the world average. With these transitions comes an increase in food demand and a rise in urban farms and informal food traders. These are traders who are largely non-compliant with municipal licensing and regulation while the market they serve is significant. For example, up to 90% of the supply of leafy vegetables in some African cities is sourced from urban farms and supplied through informal traders. This is critical to not only driving food security in urban Africa but also creating primary and supplemental income opportunities. In some cities, the economic return to urban farmers is estimated to be comparable to the income of unskilled construction workers and, in some cases, more lucrative. During dry seasons, in some cities, farmers using wastewater irrigation, which is free, can sell vegetables at above double the wet-season price. Urban agriculture incomes are also estimated to be up to 50% above minimum wage.

There are an abundance of health risks associated with many common practices of urban farming, including hazardous biological and chemical exposures to farmers and consumers as a result of the use of wastewater on vegetable crops. Microbial as well as heavy metal contamination on vegetable samples obtained from sewage irrigated urban farms have been found to contain lead contamination that is up to 3.9 times higher than recommended limits. This is in addition to high soil concentration levels of other heavy metals including cadmium, chromium, copper, nickel, lead, and zinc. If current balances persist for another one to two decades, vegetables raised in some of these urban gardens will likely be unsuitable for human consumption.

Sewage effluent also contains high levels of essential plant nutrients. As a result, some urban farmers prefer to use wastewater despite the availability of freshwater because they get “free” fertiliser. As many as 60% of urban farmers in some Africa cities use wastewater for irrigation. In just one African country, an estimated one million people in urban areas eat vegetables produced with polluted water every day. Globally, wastewater crop irrigation risks the health of nearly a billion people. These heavy metals are associated with diverse health complications – from cancer to skin damage, kidney damage, heart diseases, anemia, cholesterol, and gastrointestinal disorders.

Wastewater irrigation combined with the improper use of chemical fertilisers and agrochemicals further compounds risks. In some places, up to 85% of urban and peri-urban farmers have no formal training on the application of chemical fertilisers which they use. With these considerations, food safety enforcement ought to go beyond traditional bureaucratic systems that find it challenging to police the informal food supply chain – especially in Africa’s urban areas.

Achieving food safety in Africa’s informal food supply chain under climate change

Informal food trade and supply chains are the major source of vegetable and fruit consumption in African cities. Measures to inculcate food safety need to be undertaken to reverse the silent suffering of millions of lives across the continent. These measures need to strategically work with the environment, not against it. Leveraging climate action solutions with a combination of incentives that can drive smart enforcement within local structures is a viable solution to the growing crisis of the unsafe harvesting of foods. Though, these are tough realities for this sector that serve as impediments to bettering the urban farming practice.

These informal food traders are part of Africa’s informal sector, a sector that accounts for over 80% of all employment in sub-Saharan Africa. This sector has also been described as the “present and future” of work in Africa. The increasing rate of urbanisation provides a ready lucrative market for them, including urban farmers. This means that we must appreciate the fact that banning these informal traders is not an option. Rather, what we need to do is enhance the level of traceability and accountability in how they conduct their enterprises. To this end, the following will be key.

First, we must focus on traceability. The food from urban farms, sold by informal traders, must be traceable from farming to value addition until it reaches the final consumer. Every bunch of green, leafy vegetables we pick at our local informal trader — popularly known as “mama mbogas” in Swahili slang — must be accounted for regarding how it was cultivated and farmed to ensure they are free from any form of dangerous contamination. Policy frameworks already exist. Though, they must be implemented in a manner such that they incentivize the use of climate action solutions. Specifically, using ecosystems based adaptation (EBA) approaches, such as the use of organic fertilizers and organic pesticides, will help combat the problem of chemical contamination while also bettering the environment. The use of EBA approaches is known to increase yields up to 128% under the changing climate and result in food with better immune-boosting micro-nutrients. Additionally, affordable clean energy solutions of solar dryers have been proven to dehydrate food up to 48 times faster than open sun drying and enable actors to preserve their harvest for longer, allowing them to hit the market during peak demand. Selling products during peak demand is known to bring up to 30 times more income.

Foods cultivated using EBA and processed using clean energy are specifically recognised as organic and are priced at a higher premium. In Uganda, for instance, the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) has developed a market incentive guide that incorporates these climate action solutions to drive food safety, health, quality, and environmental sustainability benchmarks along its cassava value chain. With this clear policy, cassava farmers, operating in closely monitored farming units, are adopting these sustainable approaches that automatically translate to safer food. With a clear track record of compliance each step of the way, these farmers are assured of formal and statutory endorsement by the UNBS that their produce meets a certain threshold of health, safety, quality, and environmental compliance. And with this, they can charge a premium for such products, rendering them long-term income increases. With increased awareness among consumers of the link between food and health, more tend to gravitate towards such certified compliant produce. This lucrative market becomes an incentive to shift towards safer production approaches.

Similar patterns are occurring in Nigeria. The Standards Organisation Of Nigeria (SON) has integrated nature-based, climate action solutions in their tomato growing standards. The farming sector has begun implementing beneficial measures such as planting using nature-based approaches, drying using solar dryers, and transportation using solar mobile fridges. These measures continue to enhance the quality of food, encompassing health factors, and environmental effects.

Second, we must leverage local communal structures to inculcate this accountability and traceability. As an insightful African proverb reminds us, that “money is sharper than the sword.” Therefore, the most effective community structure to leverage are communal cooperatives. Nearly all these informal food traders, who transact not more than $150 daily, are members of local community cooperatives. It is through these cooperatives that they pool resources to raise capital for their enterprises. The structures of these cooperatives need to be leveraged for traceability and checks. National standards bodies then need to implement these clear benchmarks, driving climate action solutions and food safety through a further beneficial business structure.

Every member and the farm they operate should be traced and inspected to verify compliance and issue formal compliance certifications. Through such, these cooperatives become not only centres for pooling resources and mobilising capital, but also checking members to ensure safe production. In addition, through pooling these resources, informal food actors can afford capital assets they need to achieve compliance. For example, through these cooperatives, rainwater harvesting equipment could be acquired for members to ensure water used for irrigation is safe. Solar dryers critical for safe value addition could likewise be acquired. Training on the safe use of fertilisers could also be delivered in addition to prioritising organic fertilisers that are eternally safe.

Third, leveraging youth enterprise actions as complementary in delivering these climate action solutions are critical to actualising these food safety incentives. The safer production approaches demanded by standards benchmarks – be it organic fertiliser in place of chemical ones, solar dryers for safe value addition, or rainwater harvesting equipment – all present enterprise opportunities for willing youth, thus driving production. The premium for such enterprises must be the willingness of youth to retool their skills – i.e. improve, refine, and adapt their skills, and work selflessly with peers to develop solutions through enterprise actions. For example, across Africa, there is structural guidance for youth through innovative volunteerism, urging them to use locally available material and develop mechanical solar dryers that are up to 200% cheaper than imported alternatives.

Biofertilizer is another area where youth are converting agricultural waste, be it rice husks, maize cobs, and other agricultural waste, into organic fertiliser earning over 560% profit. This same approach should be applied to rainwater harvesting solutions. To catalyze such enterprises, policy will also need to be in tandem to lower enterprise costs. A critical step could be zero-rating taxes on material and equipment required to develop such solutions. In Ghana, a policy aimed at driving the adoption of clean cookstoves experienced a leap in non-state actor investment towards implementation through a policy move to zero-rate taxation on clean cookstoves value chain. The result was 70% compliance within a year. Such policy signals that lower capital expenditures are critical to incentivise non-state actor implementation investments in driving food safety. Youth being the most significant non-state actor constituency in Africa by virtue of their numbers, ought to be the target of such incentives.


“Even as the archer loves the arrow that flies, so too he loves the bow that remains constant in his hands.” While our informal food traders should be espoused for their enterprise, we cannot for once overlook the safety aspects of what they produce- doing so will be like shooting an arrow and letting go of the bow at the same time. “We are what we eat” must become our urgent clarion call.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the authors are associated.