Modernise, clean up open-air markets to avert disease outbreak and disasters

Wednesday August 11 2021
Kenya’s Wakulima market

Sorry state of infrastructure at Kenya’s Wakulima market. PHOTO | FILE


Informal traditional food markets, such as Wakulima market in Nairobi, are usually a beehive of activity, teeming with vendors and consumers. These open-air, often chaotic, markets are the leading source of both staples and nutrient-dense food and other wares for a majority of the population in the continent. They are essential to the nutrition and food security of both urban and rural inhabitants. At the same time, the infrastructure and architecture of many of these markets pose risks to life and property: They are often old and run-down or underdeveloped.

Earlier in July, a six-hour blaze burned down Dar es Salaam’s 47-year-old iconic Kariakoo market causing losses running into millions of shillings. Stephen Lusinde of the Vendors Association of Tanzania said 1,662 vendors lost all their wares and business equipment. Out of the 397 registered traders, 224 were affected by the inferno according to Dar es Salaam’s regional commissioner, Amos Makalla.

Prior to this incident, an assessment of the market showed that most electrical wires were in poor condition or informally connected, that firefighting systems were unfit for a fire emergency, and that up to 95 percent of the service systems were dilapidated and required immediate repair and upgrading. In addition, the market’s storm water drainage trenches and pipes were in a poor state, making them vulnerable to flooding during rainy seasons. Upgrades and modifications to most sections of the market were long overdue.

These conditions are not unique to the Kariokoo market. The neighbouring Buguruni market in Dar es Salaam is no different, nor are many other traditional markets across the continent. Informal markets such as Gosa and Utako in Abuja, Nigeria, Kiambu and Machakos in Kenya, and Kimironko in Kigali, Rwanda, are all in conditions that make them vulnerable to disruptions such as weather hazards, fires, and power failures.

Some of the challenges facing these markets are improper electrical connections, poor drainage systems and water supplies (which can cause disease outbreaks), non-functioning firefighting systems, and inadequate toilet facilities. These infrastructural weaknesses not only risk physical harm to the market and the people who shop and work there, but they can also give rise to food safety hazards. Amplifying these difficulties, the authorities in these markets are often unprepared to respond in time during emergencies to save lives and property.

Several factors contribute to many of the defects in informal markets. These include poor workmanship, natural deterioration, sub-standard construction, improper use of infrastructure, and lack of regular repairs and maintenance. Due to many years of neglect, many informal markets need urgent repair, replacement, and/or rebuilding.


Despite the rapid expansion of supermarket chains in Africa, it is estimated that up to 70 percent of consumer demand in the next 20 years will still be met via informal markets. It is therefore essential that these markets are improved to ensure the safety and health of food, consumers, and vendors.

To protect life and property and enhance safety and hygiene, markets should be modernised and strengthened. Risk-attentive re-modelling and operational redesign, including spacing and zoning, would make markets less vulnerable to disruptions and create ‘smart markets’ of today and tomorrow.

To bring the status of the current informal markets to ‘smart market status’, there are basic aspects that improvements should include. First, permanent stalls should be put in place to avoid informal arrangements such as vendors selling their goods in spaces earmarked as consumer passages.

Markets should have multiple entries to minimize the density of people in any one area, with designated passages for consumers and vendors as well as for loading and offloading goods. The facility should have a formal, well-functioning electrical connection and adequate lighting. Firefighting systems should always be in good working conditions and operating personnel on standby.

To ensure proper hygiene and sanitation, markets should have sufficient water supplies, toilet facilities, and organized waste disposal and collection, including the provision of trash bins. All these changes should be made in consultation with vendors, consumers, and market stakeholders, to ensure the markets meet their needs.

In addition, market associations and management should be trained on food safety and governance to ensure continued adherence to appropriate use of the market facilities. With these changes made, Africa’s markets (and the vendors and consumers who depend on them) will be less likely to suffer a similar fate to Kariakoo.

Lewis Bett is the programme manager for the Keeping Food Markets Working initiative, at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition