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Lunch in Lusaka - choosing the healthy option

A winter wheat trial showing different planting arrangements, seed densities and varieties
Innovative design of handwash bucket, Chachacha market, Lusaka

With stereos blaring, crowded and cramped, Chachacha market in central Lusaka is typical of many in Africa. The area set aside for small restaurants, however, is not. Some thirty such restaurants line both sides of a narrow street, frequented largely by office workers, market traders and their customers. Some food is on display, but in most of the restaurants the dishes are protected from flies, and unwanted human handling, by nets or wire mesh covers. Much of the food is out of sight in covered pans. The street has no piped water, but each restaurant has facilities for customers to wash their hands in clean, running water, usually a large plastic bucket with a tap attached at the bottom. Restaurant staff wear uniforms and hats and nearly all the restaurants have been recently painted.

Cleaning up

The high standards seen in Chachacha market are the result of a wide-ranging effort to clean up Lusaka's informal food sector. Public health statistics indicate that over 80 per cent of Zambia's cholera cases are recorded in the capital; many are linked to unsanitary conditions in the city's markets. When informal restaurant owners from seven of Lusaka's markets were invited to attend a training course on food safety and hygiene, they were amazed by what they learned. "We were surprised," says restaurant owner Mildred Chiduku. "We were told these rusty pans which we use are slow poison; they can cause a problem in human beings, which to me was a new thing which I did not know."

After the training, several markets made immediate changes, for example banning the use of plastic plates, which are difficult to clean, in favour of enamel or metal ones. To help finance improvements, restaurant owners formed groups, saving money on a weekly basis - a system known as chilimba. The funds are used to purchase items for each member of the group; new cooking pots, plates, fans, and even fridges have been bought through the pooled money.

Informal but important

The high standards seen in Chachacha market are the result of a wide-ranging effort to clean up Lusaka's informal food sector
High standards in Chachacha market: a result of wide-ranging efforts to clean up Lusaka's informal food sector.

The clean up was prompted by research conducted by the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research (NISIR). Earlier work in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, had quantified the value of the informal food sector, revealing that informal restaurants were not only a source of affordable food for urban populations but also provided an important market for farmers, and significant employment. Research in Lusaka found over 16,000 people working in the informal food sector, more than in any government department. The Ministries of Health and of Industry, Trade and Commerce were impressed, and acknowledged that working with the restaurant owners to improve standards and encourage formalisation in the sector would be more effective than confrontation and conflict, which had been the norm.

The Lusaka City Council has been another key player. Its environmental health inspectors have been given refresher training in food safety practices, and new ways of approaching the restaurant owners. Previously, their job had been a daunting one, not least because of the political protection that most market traders enjoy through their support of one or other political party. "We were a hated sector", says inspector Brighton Sinkala, who at times faced threats and intimidation if he entered a market area. Overcoming that hatred took time. A first step was to establish trust between the inspectors and the market masters. This, says inspector Josephine Mulenga, required repeated visits until the market bosses realised the officers had come to advise rather than condemn. Once the market masters were on board, arranging training for the restaurant owners was relatively easy.

Testing of food samples has also been improved. Testing is done by the Food and Drug Control laboratory but relations with the health inspectors, who collect the samples, had been poor; most samples were rejected, with the scientists complaining that they were badly collected and invalid for testing. By visiting the markets with the inspectors, the laboratory staff were able to appreciate the conditions in which samples were gathered, and could advise on best practice.

Approaching formality

Training of restaurant owners has had wider benefits. Market health committees have been formed and the food vendors are proactive in raising standards throughout the markets. Mildred Chiduku recalls complaining to the council about the condition of the toilets in Chachacha market. "They were very annoyed with me, but after some time they realised I was right... They brought cleaning equipment. Now the toilets are clean, the surroundings are clean." The council has also started establishing designated areas for restaurants, so that facilities such as piped water can be provided. Already several restaurants are approaching the standards needed to be licensed, at which point the sector will begin contributing to government revenues through taxation. In the meantime, the restaurant owners are happy that their businesses are growing, and their increasing numbers of customers are enjoying local, tasty food that they can trust.

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1st November 2006