By Pauline Kisanga
Melami, 34, a single mother from Dar es Salaam, supports her three young children by working as a street food vendor along Sam Nujoma Road in the bustling city of Dar es Salaam.
She was taught to cook by her mother, but never on the importance of food safety and hygiene. Melami had no idea how to deal with customer complaints about her food and assumed that some were being too critical or fussy.
Melami only became aware that her customers were complaining about foodborne diseases such as upset stomach or food poisoning caused by poor food handling and safety after attending a training conducted by COUNSENUTH on behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on basic nutrition and food safety and hygiene through the Street Food Safety project.
"I had no idea nutrition was so important. I only knew I wanted to make good food and earn money,” said Melami.
“Through the training, I was able to express the challenges I face in my business and requested to be considered for any support that will help me improve my business,” she said.
She went on to describe how excited she was when she was invited to participate in the training saying, “I didn't even bring a paper or a pen to write on as I thought it would be like other meetings, but this one was different; it was like going back to school.”
Portioned meal sizes
Melami explained that the train¬ing helped her in so many ways. Before the training, I used to serve a lot of rice and ugali (stiff porridge) with very few vegetables and meat and bean groups. Following the training, I now know how to prepare better dishes using ingredients from all food groups and even offer a variety of food options to my cus¬tomers.” She added, "instead of just serving rice or ugali and beans, customers can select from meat, fish, or chicken, I now include car¬rots in the vegetables because I discovered they contain vitamins that are good for the eyes."
Improved business environment
Melami made changes to her business environment. She start¬ed with a small wooden kiosk for storage and a tent supported by four wooden poles to protect cus¬tomers from the sun.
She approached a private com¬pany, which provided her with a small tent that helps to block out the sun but does not always keep her customers dry during heavy rains.
She admits that she will need a much better vending structure that can withstand all weather conditions. Her dream is to one day own a kiosk prototype distrib¬uted by FAO and the government through the European Union (EU) AGRI-CONNECT project to street food vendors.
"The model appeals to me because it is decorated with imag¬es of nutritious foods and mes¬sages that will help raise commu¬nity awareness. It also has enough room for my kitchen and custom¬ers, and it is roofed, shielding us from the sun and rain," she said.
Melami also changed the way her customers washed their hands. Prior to the training, she only had a bowl and a jug to wash the customers' hands.
Following the training, she pur¬chased a modern handwashing station, which included a white, semi-transparent bucket with a tap and a stand to encourage cus¬tomers to wash their hands before and after meals.
Game changer for nutrition
Melami has since improved her hygiene by wearing a head cover, a clean apron, closed shoes, and keeping her nails short and tidy. Furthermore, she has begun keep¬ing expenditure and sales records to calculate and record her daily profit after deducting all expenses.
She is now regarded as a nutri¬tion game changer, teaching her customers about balanced meals, food safety, and hygiene.
"I rarely receive customer com¬plaints, and instead, I've seen an increase in the number of custom¬ers coming to eat from my kiosk, as well as an increase in sales due to the improved kiosk and nutri-tious dishes," she said.
"My goal is to have a new and improved kiosk decorated with nutrition-dense food images and nutrition messages to raise awareness about the importance of street food vendors to the larger community."
The author is a senior advisor - Governance at the Centre for Counselling, Nutrition and Health Care (COUNSENUTH)