FEATURE: Roadside food vendors thrive across Nigeria despite health risks

Nigerians eating at a food stand in Wuse.
Nigerians eating at a food stand in Wuse.

Mama Oyibo sells cooked beans, roasted plantain (boli in local parlance) and yam, alongside fish and cow skin ‘Kpomo,’ a delicacy some Nigerians love.

She sells her food at the street adjacent the popular Wuse Market, in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. He spot is an open space whose only shed is a tattered blue umbrella that can barely cover the benches.

On one of the days this reporter visits, flies perch around as she dishes beans out from an old white painter bucket. She then makes a delicacy with roasted plantain from the local fire grill.

“Oga here is your food,” she said. as she serves a man dressed in a black suit sitting on the bench.

The man is seen struggling to chase flies as he slowly eats the food even as smoke and dust from passing vehicles assail him. A sachet water is kept for the man at the edge of the dirty gutter.

“I eat here at least four times in a week,” the man, who later identified himself as John to our reporters, said.

“The truth is I have experienced diarrhea and stomach upset several times after eating here but that didn’t stop me. I have to eat, that’s not an option,” he jokingly quips.

Ubiquitous roadside food stands such as Mama Oyibo’s ordinarily called ‘mama put’ has become a common sight in major cities in Nigeria including Abuja.

Why Nigerians Love Street Food

Street food are ready-to-eat edibles and beverages prepared and/or sold by vendors or hawkers especially in the streets and other similar places such as parks and road sides.

The transient nature of street food means it can keep up with ever-changing consumer demand for new flavours, textures and winning combinations.


nlng Campaign AD

There are no category of patrons but middle and low income earners are the major consumers.

They often eat such foods because of its quantity and affordable price but the major concern for many is the health implication it comes with.

Continued consumption without medical checks can lead to serious food poisoning, health experts say.

Innocent Oche, a fashion designer at Jabi, said he eats at home only once in a while. This, he said, is due to the nature of his work, as he sometimes sleeps overnight in the shop.

“When I work at night, I buy noodles and egg or bread from “mei-shai” (tea vendor). My job won’t permit to go back home to eat, so I just eat what is close to me and besides, these food are more affordable than eating at all these big restaurants.

“I have had to deal with stomach upset after eating from a woman at Maraba. I thought I was going to die because I went through lots of pain until I met a pharmacist who gave me some drugs. After that day, I vowed not to eat at any “mama put” again. But the truth is, the following week I was back at it,” he said.

Eldee Kato, a hairdresser in Kubwa, a satellite town in Abuja, said he cannot remember the last time he ate food prepared in his house.

“When I get to work in the morning, I call that woman over there (pointing at a spot covered with tattered canopy, which serves as a shed) to give me a plate of food. Sometimes rice and beans, other times spaghetti and plantain, all for just N300 per plate. But if you don’t want meat, it’s N250 only. During lunch, I go to a Yoruba woman that sells amala (yam flour) in the next street.

“This food sometimes turn my stomach and system but since I started drinking ‘agbo’, (a local medicine) everyday, I no longer experience such.”

Source Of Income

In developing countries like Nigeria, street food preparation and sale provides a regular source of income for millions of men and women with limited education or skills, like Mama Oyibo.

“My customers no dey complain of any stomach issue,” Mama Oyibo tells our reporter in pidgin.

“I keep my food stand clean,” she added; but the stench from trash cans across the street which can strongly be perceived seems to tell a different story.

Not Just Abuja

Street food selling and hawking is even more common in Lagos. Food vendors can be seen selling on and under the bridges of the commercial city.

Edozie Onyema, a car dealer at Ijesha, says he became more skeptical about eating roadside food after he bought a barbecue chicken from a hawker and saw dark blood on the chicken after taking the first bite.

The number of street food sellers in Kano reduce minimally during Ramadan or other fasting periods that restrict businesses to barely three hours (7-10 pm) but the city has numerous roadside food vendors at other times.

At every street corner, there is Masa or Waina (made from maize or rice), Kwadon Ganye (local salad) among other street foods that are hugely patronised by Okada riders, travellers and of course low income earners.

A 70-year old Tuwon Dawa seller (a popular Hausa food) at Dangi roundabout park, Gyadi-Gyadi quarters, Kano told PREMIUM TIMES that she prepares her food at home in a hygienic environment then puts them in a plastic food flask before bringing to the park.

However, it was observed that the food is susceptible to dust and exhaust smoke of moving vehicles due to frequent opening of the container while serving customers. Also, the woman sells her food close to a “Ban Daki”, a public toilet.

Inherent Dangers

According to a 2007 study from the Food and Agriculture Organization, 2.5 billion people globally eat street food every day.

Today, local authorities, international organisations and consumer associations are increasingly aware of the socio-economic importance of street food but also of their associated risks. The major concern is related to food safety.

The health challenges include sanitation (waste accumulation in the streets and the congestion of waste water drains), traffic congestion in the city also for pedestrians (occupation of sidewalks by street vendors and traffic accidents), illegal occupation of public or private space, and social problems (child labour, unfair competition to formal trade, etc.).

However, the risk of serious food poisoning outbreaks linked to street food remains the greatest threat.

A lack of knowledge among street food vendors, many of whom are uneducated , about the causes of food-borne disease is a major risk factor.

The immediate past Kano State Deputy Governor, Hafiz Abubakar, in an interview with this paper, said though many consider food poisoning as the most serious health effect of street food, “the most frightening thing however is that it can lead to cancer”.

“Food poisoning is the immediate reaction, often the person can be rehabilitated. But continued taking of poisoned food over a period of time can lead to developing one form of cancer or the other,” Mr Abubakar, a professor of food and nutritional biochemistry warned.

He said the interaction of the food with dust and vehicle exhausts causes great health risks to consumers.

Mr Abubakar explained that, to avoid these health dangers, street food should be prepared in a hygienic environment and properly covered.

He raised caution against packaging food in a plastic container.

“If you take a very hot food right away from pan and put it in a plastic, the chemical in the plastic may infiltrate the food. There are health implications when you consume such foods.”

The ex-official said the Kano State Government employed and trained 700 environmental sanitation guards who would be inspecting places where food is prepared, either at home, restaurants or streets.

The guards have undergone training and will soon be mobilised to take action, he said.

“They are to ensure the existing laws are being imposed on food production and packaging. Almost every state of the federation has environmental sanitation laws. We need to impose these laws. We need to get people abide by these laws. If you want to hawk in the street, the site for the preparation must be hygienically standardised,” he added.

Mr Abubakar, who spoke while still in office as deputy governor, said “monosodium glutamate,” widely used by street food vendors, has a serious negative effect on the cardiac area. The higher a person consumes, “the more dangerous it becomes to his body system,” he said.

Bamidele Omotola, a nutritionist in Abuja said the major challenge of street food arise mainly due to inadequate infrastructure and urban growth.

“Like in Abuja, there are number of places, particularly where you find these food vendors or restaurants. They are always on the streets and most of these streets have no street pipes or reticulated water. They lack basic hygiene that is required. Issues of sanitation and food safety are also part of the challenges and the vendors themselves, one cannot be too sure of their health status.

“In other words, it is a major health risk. They are sources of what we refer to as microbial contaminations and different micro-organisms. We have seen in the past where people consumed food bought from the street and ended up having cholera. You can end up having salmonella. There are so many health risks involved while patronising these vendors. I think as a country and a nation and as a city, like Abuja, we need to have a national policy on street vended foods.

“I am not too sure whether this policy has been articulated and if so, I am not sure if it is being implemented. I am not even sure whether it is being monitored. However, one thing I know is that the environmental health officials are often responsible for inspecting, and that is why you see the Abuja environment agency (AEPB) trying to go round the city to confiscate and collect some of the foods that are been sold on the street. A number of people feel that it is not proper, but then it is for the good health of the nation.”

How We Regulate Food Vendors – AEPB

Muktar Ibrahim, the AEPB Head of Information and Outreach Program Unit, explained how the agency is regulating the activities of these food vendors in the capital city.

“The mama put or food vendors, most times don’t sell in approved places. They just find any convenient place and set up their table for business. The FCT environmental board disapproves that. We try as much as possible to remove them wherever we find them. There are areas that operations are allowed but then it has to be with an approval. The approval comes after proper inspection of the vicinity which they intend to trade, to ensure that there are no harmful nuisances around such area. For instance, they are not allowed to trade close to drainages because that could lead to some possible outbreaks of infections.

“They may trade in some demarcated areas like gardens but they need to apply for approval that permits them to go ahead. When that is done, the staff of the AEPB Environmental Health and Safety Department go over there to inspect and ensure that the place is hygienic enough for their trade. They will check the environment to confirm if it is within the law to trade in such places,” he explains.

He also said each of the city parks has a management in place that permits the vendors to trade within the parks.

”It’s however terrible that they will allow food vendors trade close to toilets and dirty environment. If our attention is drawn to such places, our team will storm the place and inspect and give the necessary sanction. Sanctions given when found guilty of any offence is to charge them to court and they pay fines on conviction. In many cases, their tools of trade will be seized and after payment of fines, some of their tools are released to them.

“Some food vendors that trade in parks get approval from the motor park management and most times when that happens, it is not within our jurisdiction. AEPB has its own duties and areas of coverage prescribed by the AEPB act 1997 so we operate by that Act. Some of these parks are managed by AMAC, like the Jabi park.

”They collect whatever revenue comes from there, they manage it and we also expect that they ensure the place is kept clean. That is not to say that AEPB is not carrying out intervention exercises to such places. Everywhere within the FCT is coverage area for AEPB, so we do carry out periodic exercise in such places,” he adds.


PT Mag Campaign AD

Support PREMIUM TIMES' journalism of integrity and credibility

Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.

For continued free access to the best investigative journalism in the country we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.

By contributing to PREMIUM TIMES, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.


NEVER MISS A THING AGAIN! Subscribe to our newsletter

* indicates required


Now available on

  Premium Times Android mobile applicationPremium Times iOS mobile applicationPremium Times blackberry mobile applicationPremium Times windows mobile application

TEXT AD: This space is available for a Text_Ad.. Call Willie on +2347088095401 for more information

All rights reserved. This material and any other material on this platform may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, written or distributed in full or in part, without written permission from PREMIUM TIMES.