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Street Food in Addis:delicious, cholesterol-heavy fix
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Street Food in Addis:delicious, cholesterol-heavy fix

BetelhemNigatu, 23, has worked as a street food vendor selling french-fries and fried balls of dough on the streets of Hayahulet for the past two years. Her small business has grown from a simple electric fryer and table to two fryers with a large umbrella. She has managed to save up some money and hopes to improve this setting to a cart or a small shop selling a variety of food in the near future.

“There are many more vendors today than there were just a year ago. I used to be the only one here when I first started but now you can see four other vendors on this street.”

It’s true. There are four more vendors on this street within a few meters of each other. And the number increases when moving closer to the taxi hub on the Golagul roundabout.

Primarily started among small and micro enterprises that looked to earn a steady income, street vending ventures have grown in the past few years, especially with the help of micro-finance institutions.

Betelhem had worked as an employee in a small fast food joint around Ayat before leaving to start her own business. The loan she received to begin ‘B Fast Food’ has yet to be repaid fully but she’s confident she’ll complete her payments and save enough money to buy another cart within the year.

Officers from the Addis Ababa City Administration Code Enforcement Authority frequently are at loggerheads with vendors of any kind selling clothes and household items off the streets. The city is rife with illegal and informal small-scale businesses. While Betelhem and a few other vendors have licenses to operate on the streets the majority of food vendors do not. Many appear after 4 PM, hoping to cater to the flock of working people leaving their offices.

Vendors in high traffic areas have an even more diverse food options.

The vendors found on the same street as Betelhem have expanded their selection of fried foods to include samosas and falafels. These vendors have large carts and more than one fryer. Others provide egg sandwiches and fried chicken.

Although many fear food from the street and a widespread panic leading to boycotting may have temporarily stalled street vendors in the recent past, the practice is steadily growing.

High-pressure jobs and rising cost of living in Addis Ababa has led many to choose quicker and cheaper food alternatives.

HabtuWorkeneh, 28, is a cashier in a shop around Bole. “I eat a lot from these places. I have a regular stand I go to around my office and I trust the food. But I am a little caution when trying other vendors. You never know what kind of cocking oil they are using or if they wash properly. But, I eat it everyday. I don’t have to spend too much money on a snack anywhere else. You know how expensive Bole can be.”

The food might be greasy but it offers immediate satiety. Children are surrounded by these stands when getting out of school and rush to get a fatty, cholesterol-heavy fix at their favorite carts. Cathedral School in Piassa is such a school. Yordanos, 13, says she eats French fries whenever she can. “My mom usually gives me an allowance every morning so I come here and eat French fries. It’s something I can share with my friends. We eat it all the time. I might be addicted,” she laughs.

The effects this may have on the health of consumers can be drastic including heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol. Indigestion, diarrhea and gastro-intestinal problems are problem frequently faced by consumers.

The lack of regulation of licensed and informal vendors is threatening to the health of consumers and may even lead to a public health crisis if left ignored, many warn. A simple example of this phenomenon is illustrated by the controversial use of palm oil that had stirred up controversy a few years ago. Provided as a cheap alternative to healthier options, palm oil was the only choice for low income households, those unaware of the ill effects and many establishments looking to save money.

The low melting and smoking levels of palm oil makes it perfect for frying. Oil in fryers is hardly ever dumped out after use, with cooks reusing the oil only to mix it with a fresh batch of oil when it is slightly depleted. Some vendors even use the oil until it reaches a sludge-like consistency and may sell the substance now resembling tar to car garages or other businesses to be repurposed as kerosene or car oil.

AshagrieZewdu (PhD), food scientist and assistant professor at the Addis Ababa University Center for Food Scienceand Nutrition, has found this oil being used as an ingredient during a visit to a local candy factory.

“When it comes to safety there should be no double standards;whether it is a five-star hotel or a street vendor. They should be inspected and regulated the same. There should be standards of operation for these businesses,” says Ashagrie.

Overlooking the need fora working source of clean water, proper waste disposal and proper location, street food vendors do not comply with the basic health and safety measures outlined by the Food Medicine and Health Care Administration and Control Authority of Ethiopia (FMHACA). They do not wear gloves or head covers, they handle food with the same hand they handle money and they often cross contaminate utensils.

A rather stringent food safety proclamation which was passed by House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) last week notwithstanding, focus of the government thus far has been on job creation;and the lack of regulation is astounding. Food Medicine and Health Care Administration and Control Authority of Ethiopia (FMHACA) is understaffed and has a large mandate where food inspection is not given enough attention by the federal government.The Authority is also sufferingfrominsufficient allocation of budget to run such a wide-scale operation. The Addis Ababa FMHACA branch has only 1300 food inspectors, a number that cannot meet the demand of the city.

The new proclamation of the federal government that will fragment this large institution and create a Food and Drug Administration hopes to create an effective agency able to ensure food health and safety. But street food vendors operate under the radar of officials.

The manpower needed to control such operations is improbable to obtain. Food inspectors are frequently seen as out to persecute hardworking and socially responsible individuals. Public perception of their necessity is low and many inspectors leave the job due to the negative response.

Restaurants and smaller food establishments are required to present a certificate of competency from FMHACA to the Ministry of Trade before getting a license to operate. They receive food inspection randomly or during their yearly license renewal procedure. Registered food vendors do not face such requirements and food inspectors do not visit these establishments.

Informal vendors are even harder to control.

The Center for Food Science and Nutrition is a graduate and doctorate program that has was established over a decade ago. Ashagrie is of the opinion that there is little awareness of the job of a food scientist in government institutions including the Ministry of Health and graduates of the center find the federal system has no place for their expertise. A laboratory facility and inspection programs have allowed graduates to study the practices of street food vendors and analyze the impact on health. This knowledge remains within academia and has yet to be available to the public.

AbinetWondimu, Director of the Food Institution Inspection Directorate at FMHACA, offers that there is a lack of well-educated staff when it comes to food health and safety. He also adds that there is insufficient knowledge of food safety and health measures among vendors and consumers. The agency has had difficulties in creating public awareness on food and health issues. “We use mass media and social media but we know it’s not enough.”

Ashagrie insists the onus is on the community. “Consumers must be knowledgeable about what they’re buying. They must demand quality. Vendors have social responsibility of course. Consumers are like babies–the government should help them. But we are all responsible. Government does not have the capacity to control this.”

Reforms within the government system and more awareness among the public can prevent short term or lifelong health problems among consumers.

Ashagrie proposes the establishment of a food and nutrition society in Ethiopia, a consumer advocacy group that stands on the side of consumers and polices products on the basis of health and safety.

“If we talk about every food item in detail then you don’t eat any food in this country. There are things that are killing us everyday. We need to change as a society completely. People blame the government but government is a reflection of society.”