Street food is a universal and ancient tradition. In 2007, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimated 2.5 billion people eat street food every day. In keeping with the global trend of urbanization, the market for such food has only increased since then. In most developing countries, the regulation of hygiene for street vendors is lax or even nonexistent, increasing the likelihood for health and safety risks. Yet street foods comprise a major source of income and employment for the urban poor. Thus, given appropriate infrastructure and support, the street food sector could be an avenue for promoting both affordable and nutritious food options.
For this reason, the Pardee RAND Graduate School teamed up with the African Center for Economic Transformation to host a cooking competition, using traditional grains as a key ingredient, to create nutritious and affordable street foods in Kampala, Uganda. In an attempt to address potential issues related to food safety and hygiene, street food vendors in the competition were paired with professional chef mentors, and the pairs created new food items using millet or sorghum that could be prepared and marketed by the vendors.
The partnerships between vendors and chefs appeared to work well. They created a wide array of dishes that were attractive and delicious, and designed to be profitable—paying careful attention to the cost of ingredients and the expected sales price. Moreover, the appeal of millet and sorghum as ingredients in nutritious meals and snacks was high, as was the interest in the development of a unique local Ugandan cuisine that uses local products in new ways.
To accelerate the growth of a new Ugandan cuisine that capitalizes on nutritious local ingredients in a sustainable manner, a training and innovation center is needed. It could be used to systematically train and certify street food vendors to address issues related to food hygiene, safety, and quality. It also could serve as a home and source for innovative recipes and product development around millet, sorghum, and other native foods that could be utilized by street food vendors, restaurants, and other entrepreneurs.
By continuing to foster partnerships between chefs and street food vendors, the center could ensure that lower-income consumers (and their interest in cheap and convenient foods) remain part of the product development process. The center could potentially supply ingredients at wholesale cost to certified low-income vendors who prepare nutritious products. It could establish benchmarks or certification for food quality and safety, which could be used as a marketing tool. Finally, the center could promote national food security by countering reliance on imported wheat products, and counter the trend for adoption of westernized, highly processed foods that are harmful to health.
To develop a sustainable model, the training center could include an attached restaurant and shop featuring the new Ugandan recipes and food products. This would provide the opportunity to test innovations on a real consumer market, create an on-the-job training mechanism for street vendors, and generate revenue for the center’s ingredient and equipment purchases.
Expanding the region’s culinary palette by creatively incorporating nutritious local foods could ultimately help Uganda with food security by reducing dependence on foreign imports. And a training and innovation center could help jump-start that effort by providing the infrastructure and support necessary to expand the food options in a safe and sustainable way.
Michele Abbott is an assistant policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a Ph.D. candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Deborah Cohen is a senior scientist at the RAND Corporation. This blog post was written for the Pardee Initiative for Global Human Progress.
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.