I stumbled upon them last weekend in, surprisingly of all places, Victoria Island one of the most “highbrowed” neighborhoods in Lagos. Rows upon rows of street food vendors with patrons hustling to get the attention of the food seller and jostling for a place to sit with their plates of indescribably cheap food. Welcome to what I would call “Cholera Alley” or “Cholera Cul de Sac”. Not the most enviable place to have your lunch except you are amongst the many Lagosians living below the poverty level of less than a dollar a day.
Popularly called Cholera Joints, they are familiar sights in this country, especially in urban centers. Preparing and selling food under the most unhygienic circumstances, these roadside food vendors have gained notoriety as public health menaces, perhaps the number one public health menace in our urban society. Sometimes late last year four persons died in Lagos, from what the Lagos State Ministry of Health confirmed to be cholera, after patronizing roadside food vendors like these.
I was told that the term “Cholera Joint” was coined on Nigerian University and Polytechnic campuses many years ago to describe those low life cafeterias with plank and plywood walls and pot-holed concrete floors situated on the fringes of campus society where food is sold cheap and usually patronized by those students who couldn’t afford the opulent restaurants located in the Student Union Building.
These dodgy canteens were aptly named cholera joints by students because except you are extremely lucky you stand the chance of bagging a dose of vibrio cholerae, the causative agent of cholera, in addition to the cheap meal you pay for. As it is “Cholera joints” are not limited to campuses, the entire society is dotted with them, encouraged and spurred on by the high poverty levels in the land and further enhancing the public health burden of food-borne illnesses.
The public health problem of street food vendors is not limited to Nigeria, it’s a phenomenon common to developing countries. The question is how should this problem be addressed here in Nigeria?
Should there be an outright clamp down on them? I don’t think this strategy will work for three simple reasons:
1. These vendors are so widespread that it is next to impossible to locate them all to implement any effective clamping down exercise, and because they are very mobile with few fixed assets it will be easy to avoid being detected.
2. Secondly clamping down outrightly may cause social upheaval no matter how minor it will be anyway. It can be viewed as the rich again taking it out on the poor, a regular sentiment in our classed Nigerian society because majority of the poor depend on street food as restaurants are beyond their reach.
3. Street food vending has significant economic relevance. It occupies a large portion of Nigeria’s informal business sector and may be too important to outrightly clamp down on for this reason.
Another option is to legislate and regulate their activities. This would have been an effective strategy if the appropriate government commitment especially at the state and local government levels is present and also if there is availability of resources to monitor compliance to regulations and legislations. The first is very questionable and the second is doubtful because of how widespread and ubiquitous these food sellers exist all over the urban areas.
A third option is to reach out to these street food vendors and engage them in awareness campaigns, teaching them basic food hygiene practices that will protect their patrons and themselves, helping them to understand the benefits of improved hygiene and sanitation and where possible providing basic infrastructure for them such as food warmers, brooms, napkins, soaps, etc. Now this approach will naturally be painstaking and requires patience and persistence. Each roadside food vendor needs to be convinced and convinced thoroughly of the need for change and there are hundreds of thousands of them dotting the landscape. But it can be done, resulting in a win-win situation for government, the food vendors themselves and their customers.
This third option can be effectively pursued by NGOs with adequate fundings and grants and this is part of the objectives of Food-Borne Illness Prevention Initiative to reduce the public health burden of food borne illness in the society.