Food Safety Values, Knowledge, and Practices in Traditional Markets in Nigeria: A Focused Ethnographic Study
Most Agrilinks readers will agree that food safety is an important problem in many low- and middle-income countries: It results in about 600 million global illnesses annually, with a price tag estimated at $20 billion. But how do the people most directly affected by this – the vendors selling food in these markets, and the consumers buying it – feel about it? Do they recognize food safety as an issue? What foods do they perceive as being “safe” or “unsafe,” and what do they see as the main risks? And what, if anything, do they do to mitigate those risks?
Understanding these topics is essential for designing interventions to enable consumers to demand safer food and vendors to deliver it. But to date, there has been surprisingly little in-depth research that has looked at these types of perceptions and beliefs. A new study from EatSafe aims to fill this gap.
We adapted the "focused ethnographic study" approach, which has been applied to other topics related to public health and nutrition but not yet to food safety, to examine the views of vendors and consumers in three markets in Birnin Kebbi, Nigeria. The study used semistructured interviewing, cognitive mapping techniques and market observations.
Consumers generally had a moderate level of concern about foodborne illness and named foodborne illness as a health worry. However, consumers’ concerns about food safety did not seem to be strong enough to prevent consumption of certain foods. Most food was seen as safe, and most food-safety issues were seen as things that could be mitigated with household behaviors such as washing or cooking. The foods seen as safest tended to be processed and packaged products and tubers and grains, whereas the “less-safe” foods in Birnin Kebbi markets included cowpea, beef, local rice and green leafy vegetables.
The main food safety issues consumers worried about were chemicals (including preservatives, pesticides and insecticides) and insects. Cleanliness of the vendor or of the food played some role in steering consumers’ choices but was weighed against other concerns – such as price and product availability. Both men and women played a role in food shopping – but there were gender-related differences noted for how they shopped. Women were seen as “picky” shoppers who would take their time and bargain hard, whereas men were seen as being less discerning and often in a hurry. This suggests a potential leverage point for reaching each gender with tailored messaging.
While vendors were divided in terms of their worry about food safety, all saw clear gradations in food quality and recognized serious quality degradation (i.e., food that was so degraded it was unsafe) as equating to a hard-to-sell product. Similarly, vendors felt that only a minority of consumers were motivated by ensuring they purchased safe food – but that nearly all were determined to get high-quality food. Safety and quality were thus separate but highly interrelated concepts for vendors. Vendors largely agreed with consumers in terms of which foods were the most and least safe. Interestingly, vendors’ competition was constrained by norms about “fair pricing” and strong ties with other vendors, suggesting that collective and collaborative, as opposed to competitive, approaches to improving food safety might be promising in this context.
Overall, the data paint a rich picture of how the people of Birnin Kebbi’s traditional markets conceive of food safety and act on it in their daily lives. Alongside other types of evidence produced by EatSafe partners, such as sourcing vendor stories and a stakeholder map, the results were essential inputs into the design of soon-to-be-launched interventions to improve food safety in Birnin Kebbi and elsewhere in Nigeria.
This blog post was made possible through support provided by Feed the Future through USAID under the terms of Agreement #7200AA19CA00010. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States government.