Food Safety in Nairobi informal settlements

By Shadrack Mbaka and Grace Watetu

Food security and safety exists when all persons, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. However, this can only happen when concerted action at all levels is synergized. It is important that each nations and governments adopt a strategy consistent with its resources and capacities to achieve its individual goals and, at the same time, cooperate regionally and internationally in order to organize collective solutions to global issues of food security. In a world of increasingly interlinked institutions, societies and economies, coordinated efforts and shared responsibilities are most essential.

Urban street vendors are turning out to be the major providers of food in low-income urban settlements; regardless of their noble role is society they are often seen as a threat to society. As perceived by both communities and city planners, their stalls happen to increase congestion in the very limited public spaces of the settlements, often causing obstructions; and inadequate food safety measures, including poor storage facilities and contamination from nearby waste dumps and open sewers, associates them to poor health.

As a result of these perceived view of the vendors, street food vendors often face the possibility of being evicted from their scene of vending or forced closure by city authorities during disease outbreaks. This does not only affect livelihoods of the vendors but also affects and destabilizes access to food for the urban poor trapped in abject poverty, who tend to be most dependent on street vendors.

What happens when we stop viewing food vendors as an impediment to urban planning, especially on the utilization of public spaces? As a movement (Muungano wa Wanavijiji, Kenya federation of the Urban poor), Muungano Support Trust, our development partner International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the Development Planning Unit, of the University College London (DPU) recognises the important role of street vendors and supporting them to improve the safety and quality of their products is a major opportunity for increasing urban food security and safety.

Why Food Security/Safety in urban informal settlements Matters

Informal settlements are human settlements incorporating communities that are characterized by one or more of the following development and planning shortcomings: insecurity of land tenure, poor structural housing conditions, deficient access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and severe overcrowding.

Informal settlements are located in areas where no development has taken place, owing either to unstable land (Bondeni; Mathare), or proximity to garbage dumps or industrial areas. Most informal settlements lack accessible roads and government-run facilities such as health facilities and services.

Mathare; Bondeni village

Mathare; Bondeni village

Access to food, let alone its nutritional value, is a major challenge for slum dwellers. Some even cheaper alternatives include street food and fast food, which is sometimes processed, unhygienic, and lacking in nutritional value. In Mathare; Bondeni Village, cow, fish and chicken intestines from slaughter houses such as Kiamaiko and Barma Meat Markets find their way into the community as cheap protein. Given that 26% of children die as a result of diarrhea each year in the urban slums, food safety is a major force affecting health care.

Provision of clean water poses a major challenge to slum dwellers. (Mathare Zonal Plan 2010) found that many low-income households spend 10–20% of their income on water; however, even these expenditures do not guarantee that the water is available or clean.

Communities’ health status in informal settlements is determined by multiple, intersecting factors including income, food, water, security, sanitation and solid waste disposal, political and policy frameworks, and availability of quality health services.

Waste disposal poses a major problem for slum residents, with negative implications for their. Solid waste services are a rare spectacle in poor urban settings since most slums do not benefit from city services. As a result, residents live among mountains of garbage and the associated health repercussions.

Heaps of garbage close to river and dwelling structures

Heaps of garbage close to river and dwelling structures

However, in Nairobi, dumping sites are a major source of livelihood for many residents.

Whereas, toilets are often privately owned and/or pay-per-use, many residents resort to defecating in the open or in plastic bags. As a result, human waste can be found in plastic bags or out in the open on the streets of informal settlements. These areas need well-managed, officially licensed and community-supported toilets.

Government and stakeholder planners must ensure that all of these areas are addressed to truly make an impact.

In order to create a clear understanding of the physical and social constraints in the space within which street vendors operate, and integrate it in community-led infrastructure planning in the settlements. In order to bring out a clear picture of these physical and social constraints, the team is geared towards providing data and information that will inform Kenya’s Food policy.

Collaborative Acts

The project intends to document how the activities of street vendors contributes directly or indirectly to access to food for local residents, but can also result in inadequate food safety (and at times limited access to food) because of their exposure to environmental risks. The work takes place in selected areas of three informal settlements of Nairobi: Mathare, Kibera and Mukuru. The documentation, which has already begun in Mathare, will be in relation to infrastructure such as footpaths and roads; public and private light/electricity sources; public and private toilets etc and environmental risks.

This collaboration on Food safety in urban poor settlement, intends to build on the existing and ongoing mapping of housing and facilities undertaken by Muungano and MuST within the settlements, and contribute to knowledge and reflection by local organisations (federations, savings groups, street vendors associations) on how to expand community-based activities to public spaces within the settlement and improve food security as well as safety.

Capacity Enhancement

Needs and challenges stand out, as the two driving forces associated with capacity building and technical ability: the need for informal settlements to improve food safety and quality measures and the challenges of meeting this need. This collaborative study at some point, will discuss the need for improvement of food quality and safety systems in developing countries in the context of food security, public health protection and infrastructure development that will also examine means of addressing the associated challenges through new approaches in capacity building and technical assistance.


Ongoing Focussed group discussion

Ongoing Focussed group discussion

Community led Balloon Mapping Exercise

Community led Balloon Mapping Exercise

Through a participatory appraisal, focus group discussion (FGD) and community led participatory Balloon mapping, mobile application mapping the project has already collected data: Community-led mapping and FGD to get insights about the uses of public spaces (i.e. primarily main streets and walkways that are shared as children's playgrounds, animals roaming& livestock keeping, street vending locations, waste dumping sites etc.