Backyard Catering - Harare's Ticking Health Time Bomb

Sheila Mhene leaves her lodgings in Zengeza 3 in Chitungwiza early in the morning every day with a cart full of kitchen utensils and heads to the nearby shopping centre.

The 32-year-old single parent stays in a single room with her two daughters.

Mhene is one of many enterprising Zimbabweans pushed by the harsh economic climate into the backyard catering industry in Harare and Chitungwiza.

"We do not have food vending licences. Council does not monitor our operations," she said while preparing food on an open fire at a makeshift stall at Zengeza 3 Shopping Centre.

The proliferation of backyard food outlets and vendors has exposed councils' failure to deal with the problem of food vendors.
Backyard Catering - Harare's Ticking Health Time Bomb
Vendors who were interviewed by this reporter said they were aware that it was illegal to operate such businesses, but were only trying to make a living.

Mhene and other vendors have a hard time selling their food.

"We do not have toilets and water nearby. We fetch water from some boreholes," Mhene said.

"We normally use toilets in the bars or go back home when nature calls."

Most of the clientele for food venders comes from kombi crews, shop attendants, flea market operators and other traders at shopping centres.

"When I knock-off from work, there would be no electricity at home, so I buy from the open market. Besides, the food is affordable, that is why we flock to the food stalls. We don't mind how the food is cooked and handled," said Samuel Mberi, a kombi driver.

Tendai Dube, a bottlestore attendant at Chikwanha Shopping Centre said the food is properly cooked.

"I don't see anything wrong with the food. This is cooked food free from bacteria. Besides, the food is cheap," she said.

A survey carried by The Standard shows that there are so many people operating such food ventures in Harare and Chitungwiza.

The vending places are dusty and filthy with no ablution facilities and running water.

Harare City Council said the local authority does not approve of unlicensed food outlets.

"All food outlets should be registered with council, pay their operating fees and have the premises inspected. The food handlers must be vetted and inspected as well," said Michael Chideme, Harare City Council spokesperson.

Chideme said council was carrying out its mandate.

"Council inspects all food outlets. Unregistered and unlicensed outlets are closed immediately. The primary concern is the health of the residents."

An officer in the Ministry of Health and Child Care who spoke on condition of anonymity blamed councils and government for allowing food vending to thrive in towns.

"It seems we are not operating according to the Public Health Act. Government and councils have allowed these activities to proliferate," she said.

"Where are the council health departments and government's environmental health workers when all this is happening"?

Harare City Council Director of Health Prosper Chonzi confirmed that council clinics were handling cases of foodborne diseases on a regular basis.

"We are having these sporadic cases of foodborne diseases at our clinics. It is quite possible that these people would have eaten food from backyard outlets," Chonzi said.

He said people seem to have forgotten the 2008 cholera outbreak that claimed several lives in Harare and other major towns in the country.

"These uncontrolled food outlets might be sources of diseases. How do you know if the food is properly cooked or stored? How do you know if these people do not have TB, typhoid or any other disease?" Chonzi asked.

Chitungwiza Resident Trust (Chitrest) director Marvelous Kumalo expressed concern over the proliferation of such food ventures.

"Our position is that backyard catering exposes residents to health hazards as most of these activities are taking place at places that are unhealthy."

"Council should create designated food vending areas with proper sanitation facilities. It is however sad to note that these food vendors have a ready market because of economic hardships," said Khumalo.

Asked on what the council was doing to solve the problem of backyard food vendors, Chitungwiza mayor Phillip Mutoti said the authority has engaged a private company to build food stalls at designated points in the town.

"Council is working with a private company to establish proper vending sites. The company will drill boreholes, build water tanks and ablution facilities at the sites," said Mutoti.

He said the exercise would also see commuter omnibuses use designated points to pick up and drop off passengers.

The project is expected to help the council in restoring order in the town.

Mutoti said the first phase, which kicks off in a few weeks' time, would see the construction of state-of-the-art food stalls and bus termini at Makoni, Jambanja, St Marys and Zengeza 2 shopping centres.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 2 million people die annually as result of consuming unsafe food.

Food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances is responsible for more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhoea to cancers.

Local authorities seem to have lost the battle against vending which has become the prime source of survival in Zimbabwe due to the harsh economic climate.

*Not her real name

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