Nothing excites me more than visiting an open-air market and sampling some succulent, juicy pineapple, or a yellow-ripe sweet banana amidst small chit-chat with the friendly women vendors.
These pleasantries are no longer the norm. With all of us wearing masks, I can hardly recognise my vendors and they cannot make out their customers. I don’t taste the fruits until they are washed in soapy water.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed that while open markets are a key component of a sustainable food system, they aren’t built for a crisis like this one. Urban food markets in Africa often lack adequate infrastructure, resulting in over-crowded spaces and massive amounts of food waste. Vendors have little or no control over the hygiene practices of their suppliers and customers, making food safety protocols difficult to follow.
The Ministry of Agriculture has provided guidelines to help secure the food supply during this challenging time. But we need to be thinking about the long-term changes that will make our markets more resilient. African countries can develop prototypes for “smart” markets designed to ensure health and safety and equipped to meet our food needs into the future. And what could an African Smart Market look like?
First, the vast roofs of markets are a perfect place to install solar panels, enabling markets to run on sustainable energy and power surrounding consumers and businesses.
Secondly, modern African markets provide the perfect opportunity for water harvesting infrastructure. The roofs could collect water during rains, keep the market well-sanitised and supply customers and vendors with clean drinking water.
Water, sanitation and hygiene facilities are critical to limiting infection spread and protecting health. Clean facilities, maintained by private sector partners, could offer services such as sorting bays and sanitising surfaces for vendors.
Kenya generates eight million tons of waste annually, nearly 40 per cent of it from urban areas. Market waste can be sorted and converted to bio-degradable products to generate power. Organic waste could be used to produce alternative proteins for animal feed such as black soldier fly production.
Markets can be designed with basic food processing infrastructure to convert fruits into juices, reducing food waste. Fruits and vegetables spoil quickly under the hot sun. Cold storage solutions would reduce post-harvest losses. The smart market would provide an additional opportunity at the point of sale to reduce losses.
To safeguard human health, food safety and traceability must be a priority throughout the food system. While subsistence production, informal distribution channels, and traditional community markets make it difficult to implement large-scale food safety interventions, smart markets could promote a shift in consumer attitudes by designating a section where traders only sell certified and traceable produce.
Markets could be optimised to have clear entries and exits and take into account the direction of the sun and wind, minimising the need for extra work and unsanitary makeshift solutions.
We should also explore business models to help markets become self-sustaining. We can protect vendors’ livelihoods and ensure secure access to healthy, nutritious food for consumers.
Ms Kibaara is director, Food Initiative, at The Rockefeller Foundation. BKibaara@rockfound.org.