How Covid-19 Lockdowns Threatened Vital Informal Urban Food Trade
The significance of the informal urban food trade cannot be overstated. The trade provides linkages between small-scale farmers in rural areas and consumers in urban areas, this makes it key to the incomes of small-holder farmers. Over 90% of the residents of Nairobi and other urban areas access their food through these informal markets. The informal food trade is the leading income-generating activity for women in poor urban communities, with the trade dominated by women. The sector is also an important source of revenue to local/county governments through fees charged to traders and cess fees charged for the delivery of produce to markets. The informal food trade includes the selling of fruits and vegetables, ready-made food and dry grains.
Fresh produce and other food products flow into Nairobi through the major wholesale markets of Wakulima, Muthurwa, Kangemi, Gikomba and Kibra. Assemblers and wholesalers buy bulk food products in rural areas and transport it to Nairobi wholesale markets. Transport is dominated by small independent transporters, with a substantial percentage of produce transported via public service vehicles (PSVs) by traders who visit farms or sent directly by farmers to traders. The products are mostly transported at night and offloaded at the main wholesale markets between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. Small retailers pick their produce early in the morning for onward selling in various estates.
The lockdowns and cessation of movement orders imposed to control the spread of Covid-19 greatly disrupted this food supply chain. Though food transporters were exempted from this order, they faced difficulties obtaining the necessary authorizations as initially the process was not clearly defined. They also faced harassment from the Kenya Police as they were not well informed on the applicable rules. Due to the fear of contracting Covid-19 produce aggregators reduced their visit to farms while farmers were reluctant to have buyers in their farms. The cessation of movements into Nairobi counties and other coastal counties meant that traders would not travel to surrounding county farms to source for produce using PSVs and had to source for alternative and expensive means of transport to source and deliver their products.
The lockdowns disrupted the delivery of food products in the major wholesale markets, while trucks were allowed to transport food to markets during lockdown hours other key market players lacked the requisite authorization to operate. Young men who offload produce from delivery vehicles and retailers/traders and especially market women who offtake most of the products delivered in wholesale markets were unable to reach markets on time due to restrictions on movements of PSVs during lockdown hours. This made the supply chain inefficient as vehicles were parked for longer hours at the markets increasing the cost of doing business.
Kenya imports a substantial proportion of its food from neighboring countries especially Uganda and Tanzania. Regional governments made concerted efforts and exhibited goodwill to facilitate cross border trade. However, enhanced cargo screening, truck drivers Covid-19 testing requirements and temporary market closures disrupted regional trade and food deliveries to markets. At Busia, Kenya-Uganda border tailbacks were as long as 30 kms, while at the Tanzania border perishable goods being transported into Kenyan market rotted at border due to slow clearing of goods due to Covid-19 restrictions. This caused reduced supplies and prices increases in various urban food markets in Kenya.
The national government in collaboration with county governments through the Ministry of Industrialization, Trade and Enterprise, Development, issued markets protocols and guidelines to control the spread of Covid-19 in markets. The guidelines required among other things; market fumigation, establishments of hand-washing stations, controls to ensure social distancing etc. Management of markets is a devolved function hence markets are managed by county governments. Some counties closed markets to implement the guidelines which negatively affected market traders’ incomes. Instances of local authorities closing markets without warnings following confirmed or suspected Covid-19 cases were common leading to outbreak of demonstrations by traders. The most successful implementation of Covid-19 protocols was observed in markets where local authorities worked with market traders’ leaders to implement the protocols. Market closures negatively affected the traders leading to reduced income and inconvenienced customers.
The biggest impact of Covid-19 on informal urban food trade was the reduction of purchases by customers due to fall in income, reduced working hours and reduced visits to markets by customers for fear of contracting Covid-19. A survey by Microsave Consulting found that 86 percent of enterprises reported a decline in customer footfall, leading to up to a 50% reduction in income. Reduction in income were felt acutely by women who dominate the informal urban food trade, leading to food insecurities in poor urban households supported by these women. Though informal urban food trade has bounced back following the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, some traders permanently closed their businesses and may never reopen.
 The Urban Food System of Nairobi, Kenya, Hungry Cities Report No. 6, 2017.
 World Food Programme, Impact of Covid-19 Outbreak on Supply Chains, Regional Trade, Markets and Food Security in Kenya, May 2020.
 Ministry of Industrialization, Trade and Enterprise, Development, National and County Governments Market Protocols and Guidelines During Corona Virus Pandemic.
 Microsave Consulting, Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on micro, small, and medium enterprises, July 2020.
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