African Union, ILRI Prioritize Informal Food Sector in Africa

The food sector is instrumental in maintaining healthy citizens, as it has direct economic, social, and health significance, especially for the consumers’ reliance on informal food sources. Food and nutrition security is a human right often challenged on the continent due to a lack of balanced regulation in the informal food sector to ensure food safety.

The African Union and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) have joined forces to create the first framework addressing the unique challenges faced by this vital but often overlooked sector.

Africa’s informal sector is critical for food security, employment, and livelihoods, particularly for the urban poor. This importance is underscored by data showing that roughly 70 percent of Africa’s urban households purchase food from informal markets, including street vendors, kiosks, and traditional market sellers.

The framework results from the recognition that most African consumers buy food from the informal sector, which requires different approaches to food safety management. While compliance with food safety standards has improved for Africa’s exported goods, minimal progress has been seen in the domestic informal sector, which is typically fragmented and under-resourced.

It’s imperative to acknowledge that food safety in Africa’s domestic markets, including informal ones, has historically been neglected or mismanaged. Over 90 million Africans become sick from foodborne illnesses yearly, costing an estimated US$16 billion in productivity losses. In comparison, the international community invests just US$55 million annually in food safety projects on the continent.

According to Silvia Alonso, Senior Scientist Epidemiologist at ILRI, western approaches to improving food safety, which include compliance with strict requirements and involve complex documentation processes, have been successful. However, this success is largely because these processes are well-suited to the formal sector, which is more regulated and has sufficient financial resources.

The reality is that most African consumers buy food from the informal sector, which requires different approaches for food safety management. With the right support, governments can unlock the informal sector as a vehicle for healthy and safe foods for all and a source of decent and dignified employment for men and women, especially youth, in Africa,” said Silvia Alonso.

The framework is essential for understanding African food issues as it seeks to reflect the realities of African food systems. It aims to improve how African governments engage with the informal sector to enhance food safety. Draft guidelines have been developed following the AU’s continental-wide Food Safety Strategy for Africa, published in 2021, to encourage improvements in food safety management.

Embracing and engaging with the informal food sector as a cornerstone of food systems transformation is likely to play a key role in the post-Malabo agenda.

According to John Oppong-Otoo, Food Safety Officer at the African Union International Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR), the adoption of these new guidelines will provide realistic and practical guidance to help governments work with the informal sector and gradually transform it to safely and sustainably sustain the population.

Food and nutrition security is a human right, and yet unsafe food undermines this right for millions of Africans every year,” said John Oppong-Otoo

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