Empowering Street Food Vendors for a Safer Future: Is Food Safety Achievable or Is it an Oxymoron?

June 27, 2024


Antonina Namaemba Mutoro

Associate Research Scientist

Daniel Osuka


David Osogo

Research Officer


The right to food is a fundamental human right, enshrined in many national constitutions and international declarations. Kenya’s Constitution, enacted in 2010, specifically affirms this right in Article 43 (1) (c): “Every person has the right to be free from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality.” This underscores the importance of not only having access to food but also ensuring that it is safe and nutritious. 

However, this right is yet to be fully realized, as access to safe food remains a challenge for communities living in urban poor settings. The urban poor rely on street food sellers for their daily nutrition. These vendors play an important role in sustaining urban food systems by delivering accessible and affordable meals to millions of people each day. They also play an important role in food safety. If they handle food in unsanitary settings, there is a risk of transmitting foodborne illnesses due to contaminations by microorganisms, potentially resulting in food poisoning and, in severe cases, death. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, contaminated food causes 600 million cases of foodborne illness each year and 420,000 deaths globally. 

In areas like the Korogocho and Viwandani informal settlements in Nairobi, most residents depend on food from the informal sector, making street food vendors indispensable. Previous research by the African Population and Health Research Center  (APHRC) has shown that over 80% of households in these settlements face food insecurity, and nearly all residents rely on purchased food, primarily from informal vendors. Residents of these settlements cite several reasons for relying on street vendors for food, including the provision of food close to their residences and workplaces, the ability to obtain food on credit, and the availability of food in small quantities and at lower prices. Despite their critical role, these vendors often operate under challenging conditions, including limited or no access to storage facilities, refrigeration, and packaging, and often a lack of clean running water and sanitation, leading to concerns about food safety. 

A public engagement project in Nairobi’s informal settlement carried out by APHRC  revealed that most of the food vendors had poor hygiene and food handling practices. It also revealed that most of the food was sold in an unhygienic environment and that most of the food in the markets suffered post-harvest loss due to poor preservation practices or lack thereof by the vendors. These phenomena increased the vulnerability of the food to contamination at the point of sale and food loss due to poor preservation and storage. 

Contaminated food contributes to illnesses such as cholera and typhoid and in the long run, can result in chronic illnesses such as cancer, affecting the health and well-being of the community.  To prevent food contamination, it is critical for all street vendors to have better  knowledge on food handling practices, food hygiene and food safety. 

The Healthy Food Africa Project

APHRC, under the Healthy Food Africa (HFA) project, has taken significant strides in enhancing food safety among street food vendors in Nairobi’s informal settlements. There have been engagements with street food vendors in Mathare, Korogocho, and Viwandani to assess and improve their food safety knowledge, attitudes, and practices through training on food safety. The vendors were assessed on the items in the table below to ensure adherence to food safety standards and practices.

Vendor Food Safety Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practices Assessment Items

Food safety knowledge Food Safety Attitudes Food safety Practices
Are germs normally found on the surface of the human skin? Safe handling is an important part of my job as a food vendor Do you have a habit of wearing protective clothing when handling or serving unwrapped food?
Should food handlers who are suffering from food borne illnesses continue handling food? Learning more about food safety is important to me Do you use a mask when you touch or distribute unwrapped raw foods
Should a dishcloth be used for wiping hands? Testing foods for safety hazards is necessary and important to me Do you wash your hands after every toilet visit?
Can the same gloves be used to handle different kinds of food? Washing hands thoroughly after visiting the toilet and before handling food is important and necessary Do you wash your hands before touching unwrapped raw foods?
Can the same gloves be used to handle cooked and uncooked food? I believe that how I handle food relates to food safety/prevention of food-borne illnesses. Do you wash your hands after touching unwrapped cooked foods?

Do you wash your hands before touching unwrapped cooked foods?

Does freezing or use of ice prevent the growth of germs/kill germs? Raw foods should be kept separately from cooked foods to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. How do you keep your fingernails?
Should vegetables be first chopped and then washed? Using caps, masks, protective gloves, and adequate clothing reduces the risk of food contamination. Do you cover food when serving?
Can a cracked dish allow germs to grow? It is important to know the temperature of the refrigerator to reduce the risk of food deterioration. Do you cover food during storage?
Can frozen foods that have been defrosted be refrozen? Improper storage of foods may be hazardous to health Do you smoke while working?
Is preparation of food in advance likely to contribute to food-borne illnesses? Food services staff with abrasion cuts on fingers or hands should not touch unwrapped foods. Do you reheat food before serving?


A total of 181 street food vendors in Korogocho, Viwandani, and Mathare were interviewed. Most of the vendors were women who had been selling street food for at least four  4 years.  The HFA project aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of training vendors on food safety and handling practices. To this end, only vendors in Korogocho and Viwandani were trained by public health officers on different aspects of food safety, including food handling and personal hygiene, using a food safety training manual for SFVs that was developed in collaboration with the Nairobi County Public Health. Those in Mathare did not receive any training, allowing for a comparative analysis. The trainings were conducted in vendors’ shops on three different occasions, enabling the officers to identify and address food safety challenges among the vendors.

Key Findings

  • Refrigeration: Only 14% of the vendors had access to a functional cooling facility.
  • Waste Disposal: This remains a significant challenge. The results indicate that 73% of the SFVs did not have adequate nearby refuse dumpsites to dispose of food waste. 
  • Training on Food Safety: Initial assessment revealed inadequate training on food handling and safety. Only 9% of the street food vendors had ever received formal training on food preparation and handling, and only 11% had undergone any kind of training on food safety and hygiene.
  • Personal Hygiene: Personal hygiene was suboptimal. Some SFVs struggled to maintain short and clean fingernails, and a small percentage had long fingernails.

Impact of the Intervention

Training SFVs on food safety improved vendor knowledge and practices, demonstrating that it is possible to improve food safety through training. However, these improvements need to be accompanied and supported by better infrastructure, including access to safe and clean water, display structures, and basic sanitation facilities.   

Integrating food safety measures into the regulation and support of street food vendors is important. This has a ripple effect; it will enhance vendors’ ability to contribute positively to food and nutrition security and, overall, the realization of the human right to food.