Real beef bones. Greasy potato chips. Chicken gizzards. Matemba. And all in huge portions generous enough to satisfy a giant! These aren’t dishes you’d find on the usual restaurant menus in the central business district, but these tasty meals are now regularly found on the menus of the city’s growing mobile and open-air food outlets.
Street and open-air food vending in Harare is going through an exciting – or is it interesting? – phase. From behind service lane kiosks, hole-in-the-wall take-away cafes, to mobile kitchens and outside caterers, the food scene is stubbornly refusing to conform to the staid, silver service and starched, white linen type of before. These days, if you want to find the best (depending on your taste), or the most interesting food around, traditional restaurants are not the places to go looking for it.
“It’s more or less like bringing the ghetto uptown – nothing wrong,” says Jabulani Ncube, who is a regular at one mobile food stall next to the inner city Copa Cabana commuter omnibus rank. Although fast food outlets are increasing at every street corner in response to the growing city population, competition between “kitchens” is tough. So hot is the competition – coming against a backdrop of dwindling disposable incomes – that some renowned restaurants outlets have literally run out of the kitchen!
The food sold on the streets is relatively cheap, readily available , and generally meets the needs of busy customers who do not have time to prepare their own food or to go to other eating houses, where the food is more expensive, and it takes longer to be served.
Although the variety of food is just what the people want, some residents have expressed guarded enthusiasm as they also recognise that street food vendors often lack the understanding of safe food handling, sanitation and hygiene, food service, hand washing, reliable sources of raw produce, and the use of potable water. In short street foods are perceived to be a major public health risk.
Harare Municipality’s Director of Health Services Dr Prosper Chonzi, says council is aware of the health issues that arise from activities like “uncontrolled food sales and vending in the CBD”, explaining that most of the communicable water-borne diseases are also food-borne. These are diseases like cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and other types of diarrhoea. “Remember the 2008 cholera outbreak and the recurrent typhoid outbreaks,” he says, explaining, “It is unfortunate that police and vendors are playing a cat and mouse game because of these illegal activities but the community must be aware of the dangers of buying food from unlicensed, uninspected, unhygienic points, where even the source and quality of food is unknown or substandard.”
The main consumers of street foods are other members of the informal sector, such as fellow hawkers, street hustlers, casual labourers, children, students, and office workers. Speaking to Harare News this week, Executive Director of the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) Rosemary Siyachitema, said that while they do not have the power to stop vendors selling from the streets, “people should not compromise their health by just buying food from anywhere. Due to the conditions under which street foods are sold there is concern that food may be contaminated with heavy metals and pesticide residues,” she said, adding, “These contaminants may come from the utensils, raw materials or transport methods used and may also occur due to the lack of appropriate storage facilities. In most cases the vendors do not have adequate facilities for washing food and some vendors start their duties without washing their hands,” explained Siyachitema, emphasising that foods and ingredients are subjected to repeated contamination from handling and the materials used for wrapping, such as newspaper, kaylite and reusable polyethylene bags.
But others beg to differ. Mai Chido, a food vendor operating a “table” take-away outlet in a service lane behind Harare Street, finds nothing amiss, saying, “It’s the food we all eat at home, the food we can all afford.”
Consumers tend to look mostly at the price and might be already accustomed to the taste of unhealthy meals. Vendors, on the other hand, have a very small margin of profit and are inclined to keep expenses low by using poor quality ingredients and disregarding costly hygienic practices.
Emmanuel Chikadaya, a flea market holder along Chinhoyi Street, concurs. “We see a lot of new types of illegal outlets springing up. It’s democratic consumption now.”