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Cletus Acho-Chi
Department of Geography, University of Buea, Buea, Cameroon


The mobile food service practice is one of multiple survival strategies adopted by poor urban
households in Cameroon to maintain and expand the base of subsistence incomes, especially in
the current surge of economic crisis. Though a fast-growing informal sector enterprise, it is still at
an artisanal stage in urban Cameroon, creating an urgent need for a supportive policy environment
that could have measurable positive impacts on improving the productivity, welfare and income
levels of the micro-entrepreneurs. This study looks at the mobile food service practice in Kumba,
Cameroon, in terms of its basic characteristics, the locational factors influencing its socio-spatial
distribution, the critical success factors (CSFs) determining customer choices, and its impacts on
the local environmental resources and quality of urban life. The mobile food service practice
creates employment, generates income, and acts as a food energy-support instrument to the
urban poor and local economic activities operating in Kumba. The vendors, who are mostly
women, can make incomes that are 405 per cent of the national minimum wage and, thus, contribute
financially towards the education, health and survival of their families. The paper provides some
recommendations on ways to improve the efficiency of this sector so as to achieve sustainable
economic and social development and to enhance empowerment thereof.

Keywords: informal sector economy, micro-finance schemes, women entrepreneurs, mobile food
vending, central place location, Cameroon


Many studies have been undertaken on as the cornerstone of urban growth, expansion
urbanisation, urban activities and functions, and development, given official recognition
the interaction and interdependence of with recorded and measured indicators of gross
activities of urban dwellers, and urban areas domestic product (GDP). In contrast, the non-
as market centres. Urban areas are magnets for basic, local or population serving sector lacks
industrial, manufacturing and resource- official recognition and includes unregulated
oriented companies (like logging and mining) and unmeasured components (Anita &
or basic sector firms, whose fortunes depend McDade, 1998). This informal sector, sometimes
largely upon non-local factors (Johnson, 1972). regarded as an undesirable “retarded” sector
The basic sector produces goods for export, with low productivity and a drag on economic
fetches income earned elsewhere and is seen growth (Juma et al., 1993), has also been

Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 23(2), 2002, 131-148

 Copyright 2002 Department of Geography, National University of Singapore and Blackwell Publishers Ltd

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132 Acho-Chi

acknowledged as important in providing (EPOC), a small think tank in Washington, D.C.,

employment, services and goods (Hart, 1973; addressing the specific needs and concerns of
Cornia et al., 1992) through economic activities women in international development circles.
that depend largely upon local selling This orientation is clear in her book, Street
conditions. Foods: Urban Food and Development in
Developing Countries (Tinker, 1997), the first
The mobile food service trade is an detailed empirical study of those who make, sell
important component of the informal economy and consume street foods, based on 15 years
in Kumba, the largest town in South West of research in the Philippines, Thailand,
Province, Cameroon. It is a home-based Indonesia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria and
enterprise carried out in makeshift structures Senegal. Tinker shows how cultural attitudes
or stalls along the street by isolated, self- affect what foods are sold and eaten, by whom
reliant individuals who meet the nutritional and when. She also refers to development
needs of the urban poor. Food preparation theory and practice in relation to the economics
and service occur at different sites, with the of street foods, including nutritional safety
home-prepared foods transported to meet aspects, and the implications for research,
clients at, often unauthorised, locations within planning and policy. The robustness of the
the urban area that constitutes the spatial respective country data that allow comparisons
market. In urban Kumba, the mobile street food of similarities and differences among street
service system enjoys a wide spatial vendors, including demographic and gender
distribution. The concentration of mobile food variations, like other feminist investigations, are
sellers is highest in the central business district used to frame an action agenda. Tinker’s
(CBD), and the network distance between any studies, showing the significant economic,
two food service points varies from 5 m in the cultural and nutritional benefits of street foods,
CBD to 500 m in the suburban zone and 1,000 have helped to change the policies and practices
m in the peri-urban area. of municipal and national governments and the
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In
This case study broadly examines the many of the study cities, local officials no longer
socio-spatial distribution and economic and harass or hit upon street food operators but
environmental impacts of the mobile food provide education about food safety and
service system in Kumba. It specifically seeks vendor health.
to: (i) identify the basic characteristics of the
mobile food service micro-enterprise; (ii) Also pertinent in this respect is the work of
discern the locational factors of this non-basic the International Alliance of Street Vendors,
sector; (iii) highlight the impacts of the mobile founded in 1995 by groups of activists from
food service system on the quality of urban 11 countries to promote and protect the rights
life; and (iv) recommend some planning and of street vendors. Its focal point of action is
design guidelines for improving productivity the 1995 Bellagio International Declaration
in the context of poverty alleviation and which sets forth a plan to create national
sustainable urban development. policies and calls for action at four levels,
namely, by individual traders, traders’
LITERATURE REVIEW associations, city governments and inter-
national organisations, including the United
Most street food enterprises are operated by a Nations, International Labour Organisation
single, usually female, vendor or a couple, with (ILO), and World Bank. A long-term objective
no employees, but entailing considerable of the Alliance is to build a case and mobilise
unpaid family labour. In 1978, Irene Tinker, a support for an international strategy such as
feminist pioneer in the field of international an ILO convention on the rights and needs of
development, founded the Equity Policy Center street food vendors.

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Mobile Street Food Service Practice in Cameroon 133

Other specific writings on the street food households change their economic behaviour
trade include Winarno (1990), Wood (1990), in order to limit the damage to their welfare.
Saito (1991), Bapat (1992), Mosse (1993), Survival strategies generally involve
Downing (1995) and Solo (1998). Winarno and generating additional income or reducing
Allain (1991) pull together the current benefits household overheads at the expense of non-
of the street food trade to demonstrate that financial aspects of welfare, such as household
street food entrepreneurial activities use local time, conducive living and working environ-
resources and markets, provide vendors with ments, family unity and integrity of the local
satisfactory earnings and customers access communities. Accordingly, community
to inexpensive, varied and nutritious foods. support mechanisms form an extremely
On the other hand, the problems and important informal redistributive and social
constraints faced include harassment by local security system in containing the negative
officials; contamination from unsanitary effects of adverse economic development on
practices; lack of credit, recognition and legal low-income households. Certainly, in many
status; complex or non-existent licensing developing countries, and especially in sub-
systems; ineffective and arbitrary inspections; Saharan Africa, social organisations provide
and aggravated traffic congestion. In order to vital financial, material, moral, and other forms
protect public interest and meet social needs, of support to members whose socio-economic
fair licensing and inspection practices conditions have been weakened by structural
combined with educational drives are con- adjustment. The informal sector is conceivably
sidered by urban planners and social workers the most dynamic aspect of the urban
as some of the best long-term measures. development process in sub-Saharan Africa.

RATIONALE FOR THE STUDY Home food preparation and sale enterprises
have implications not only for the nutritional
The demands of sustainable urban develop- status of urban dwellers, but also for national
ment represent a daunting challenge in sub- productivity, employment, income generation
Saharan Africa, including Cameroon. and urban environmental management
Urbanisation, characterised by rapid concerns in Cameroon, as elsewhere. Hence,
population growth and widespread poverty, the interventions by governments aimed at
has led to a heavy reliance on the informal regulation. For instance, in Trinidad, this
sector in most built-up areas. Urban poverty informal sector is allotted a specific site in the
is very visible in most households in major centre of Port of Spain (Lloyd-Evans, 1993),
towns and cities, which typically lack the most and Singapore’s “solution” to street food
basic amenities for a decent standard of living vending is widely admired among government
(Bernstein et al., 1992). The financial pressures planners in Asia (FAO, 1989, 1990). However,
on the urban poor result in the search for in Cameroon, the regulation of this informal
alternative livelihood strategies. Migrants and sector, in terms of practice, policy and access
low-income urban inhabitants fend off abject to resources, is crucially lacking. The Kumba
poverty through a gamut of networks and Urban Council (KUC), like authorities in many
social organisations, such as traditional urban areas elsewhere in the developing world,
rotating savings groups, credit unions and does not have well-designed strategies that
cooperatives. The greater geographical are informed by an understanding of how the
concentration of the less well-off makes it urban poor really live and survive. The
easier for them to organise and to protect their increasing demand for relatively inexpensive,
interests (Woodward, 1992). home-meal-replacements (HMRs) adds to the
strain on existing food distribution infra-
When faced with a serious deterioration in structure and facilities, most of which are
their economic situation, many urban already inefficient, unhygienic and environ-

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134 Acho-Chi

mentally unfriendly. Therefore, policies to countries. Assuming a division of the

develop urban food nutrition security must economy, albeit never clear-cut, into basic
necessarily seek to improve market efficiency, and non-basic sectors, this analyses urban
maintain stable prices and ensure the quality and regional growth based on a single causal
of the environment. Hence, there is a great model that presupposes the basic sector as
need to assist the local-level decision-making the “engine” of the local economy. In the
bodies by clarifying the defining characteris- rapidly growing cities of the developing
tics of the mobile street food service practice world, the development of the basic sector
and suggesting interventions to promote the encourages development of the non-basic
self-reliance of poor urban communities. or informal sector of, often non-enumerated,
economic activities. Consequently, the
informal economy depends on the
practicability of registered enterprises in
AND METHODOLOGY terms of inputs, expertise and markets.

The concepts of threshold (minimum number The above theoretical insights are utilised
of clients) and range (maximum distance to establish the relative significance of the
travelled by clients) of goods and services various parameters involved in the mobile
from Christaller’s (1933) central place theory food practice. The geographical relevance of
can be used to define some key elements of the investigation raises two main questions
the Kumba mobile food service system. From that allow conclusions reaching beyond the
existing related literature, the street food trade particular case of Kumba: What accounts for
typically exhibits small thresholds and shorter the existing food service locations? What
ranges. If threshold conditions are met within differences in local income and wealth are
the appropriate range, the informal entre- attributed to the mobile food service system?
preneurial activities thrive easily. This goes to
Christaller’s assumption on the evolution of The sources of information for this study
economic landscapes being solely related to include the author’s personal experience,
the development of tertiary activities and direct observation, and qualitative and
rational consumer behaviour. Finally, within questionnaire surveys. Two different sets of
the municipality, there exist locations at which questionnaires were designed and randomly
entrepreneurs could compete by offering administered to the mobile food vendors and
lower-order functions, for example, foods that their clients who formed the units of
are consumed more frequently and for which observation and analysis. Data were collected
customers will not be willing to travel long on qualitative and quantitative variables such
distances. This underpins the marketing as capital acquisition, market size, sources of
principle of spatial competition and central inputs, food service sites, effect of distance
place location, which is reasonably reinforced on delivery prices, costs and revenues, daily
in the present study. working hours and consumer behaviour. In
order to spread the sample population over a
The second theoretical framework wide area of the municipality, the study urban
involves competing views within economic area was divided into seven zones: Kumba
development theory and practice on the Town city centre (main market area), Fiango
informal sector, women’s status and economic Three Corners (Kumba railway station),
attitudes within the family and community, Mbonge Road Quarter, Puletin/Kosala, Buea
and urban planning standards and goals. Road Quarter, Bakoko Quarter and the Hausa
Economic base theory provides an obvious Quarter (Figure 1). Random sampling in each
model for the basis of the non-basic economy zone allowed the mobile food sellers an equal
in urban Africa, as in other developing and independent chance of being selected.

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Mobile Street Food Service Practice in Cameroon 135

Figure 1. The Kumba urban area including the seven study zones.

The key to proper sample selection is an up- per food site were polled discreetly at 30-
to-date population frame from which the sample minutes intervals (enough time for one
can be drawn. Kumba town has an estimated questionnaire to be completed), making a total
1,600 street food sellers, but only 488 (about 30 of 600 customers surveyed. Qualitative
per cent) are registered with the KUC statistical techniques including tables,
Department of Health and Sanitation (DHS) proportions, correlation and the Student t Test
(field interview with local officials, October were used to analyse and interpret the results.
2001). These legal operators constituted the Two major drawbacks affected the information
actual population of interest in a pilot survey, gathered on the vendors: first, the reluctance
from which a sample of 75 vendors (about 15 of respondents to declare their real profits and
per cent), comprising 64 women and 11 men, operational capital size; and, second, their lack
was obtained. Field investigation at the stalls of proper records of business expenses (or
of the food vendors in the sample was carried investment levels), daily earnings, losses and
out in October 1999 and April 2001 by one junior rents. While this made it difficult to determine
teaching staff member and two graduate the tangible economic strength of the street
students, with an entire geography graduating food vendors in the sample, their continuous
degree class of 40 students assisting. To stay in the local trade coupled with their
understand the behavioural and other subscription to family welfare logically implies
characteristics of customers, eight individuals that they operate at a profit.

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136 Acho-Chi

POLICY ENVIRONMENT diseases (Winarno & Allain, 1991). The DHS,

which is responsible for ensuring the safety
As the economic nerve centre of South West and contents of all commercial foods, requires
Province, Kumba harbours various ambulant itinerant food sellers to be certified healthy
enterprises, of which mobile food retailing is and free from infectious diseases such as
the responsibility of the DHS. The local active tuberculosis, diarrhoea, typhoid and
business population of traders, farmers, timber dysentery. The submissions for authorised
exploiters, taxi drivers and public servants, operation in Kumba are: a duly completed
who find it far more convenient to look for application form (with a CFr100 communal
HMR options during break periods, makes stamp), a tax receipt of CFr3,500 (CFr700 =
street food retailing a vital economic activity. US$1 in November 2001), a copy of the national
The urban poor and school children swell identity card, a medical certificate and a
these numbers. The urban poor do not eat at hygienic sanction. Sanitary agents visit food
home, let alone have good eating habits in sites before legitimising them. Even so, the
terms of variety, proportions and moderation; powers that be consistently prevent the
in fact, most urban dwellers eat one large meal itinerant food vendors from using available
in the middle of the day, implying that they open spaces in the urban district.
hardly make satisfying food choices.
Though street food vending is an important
In low-income countries, the regular urban function in developing economies,
clientele for street foods is not confined to urban leaders and planning agencies tend to
poor households, nor are higher levels con- look upon the vendors as an encumbrance to
sumed (Winarno & Allain, 1991), though many the designed development of the city and local
low-income families would be worse off authorities continually embark on street-
without street vendors providing nutritious, clearing exercises, destroying stalls and
inexpensive meals. As Winarno and Allain confiscating supplies (Tinker, 1997). Similarly,
(1991) observed, “availability and accessibility, in Kumba, the urban planning process does
rather than individual income or stage of not define the values and needs of those
national development, determine street food involved in the informal economic sector. Far
consumption patterns”. In Kumba, even the from regulating the mobile food service system,
well-off are happy to save money by eating the existing laws create stress, stifle
on the street, and the demand for affordable, productivity and prevent any innovative
healthy HMRs has also increased as urban approaches to street food vending as a family
working women have less time to prepare the survival strategy. Indiscrimate and routine
evening meal, most often eaten at home. Half harassment by corrupt local law enforcement
the households supplement home meals by agents and officials of the ministries of
purchasing dishes that need elaborate or time- Housing and Town Planning, Trade and
consuming preparation, such as mbombo djobi Commerce, Public Health and Tourism is
(mashed cassava/fish/spices) and kwakoko/ widespread. There is an urgent need to change
mbanga soup (crushed taro/palm oil/fresh attitudes.
fish), or are uneconomical to prepare in small
quantities, such as ndole (bitter leaf soup/ The fact that about 70 per cent of street
tubers). food micro-entrepreneurs in Kumba operate
without a health certification or a public sale
Overall, consumers pay attention to license indicates the absence of an appropriate
convenience and low prices and usually regulatory policy and facilities to improve the
neglect aspects of hygiene or sanitation; most street food trade and minimise negative
lack an understanding of proper food-handling ecological side-effects. The recommendation
practices and the potential for food-borne is for the Kumba urban management

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Mobile Street Food Service Practice in Cameroon 137

authorities to set up non-formal participatory appliance and automobile repair, basic

mechanisms with representation by street food foodstuff retailing, tailoring, hawking and
vendors, non-governmental organisations driving, that sometimes require labour inputs
(NGOs) and law enforcement agents in order of up to 16 hours daily. Characteristically, these
to expedite proper assessments of the industry involve unregulated, competitive markets with
as well as appropriate regulations that connect ease of entry and are family- or individually-
with the needs and demands of the vendors. owned small-scale operations that rely on
In the face of a fast-growing street food sector, indigenous resources, labour-intensive
it is critical for the KUC to make the mobile adoptive technology and competitive market
food vendors a unique constituent of local skills largely acquired outside the formal
plans to encourage a competitive modern education system (ILO, 1985; Thomas, 1992).
urban delivery system. The informal sector, without doubt, offers
great opportunities for employment and
URBAN KUMBA poverty alleviation.

Kumba’s central location in Cameroon has Kumba’s population is ethnically diverse

caused it to develop as a national trade centre. (Table 1), which holds potential advantages
Besides its important central functions in for further research on how the different
spheres of administrative services and trade, household and family dynamics shape the
the town is directly linked by road and/or rail economic strategies of the urban poor. With
to other economically important towns in the respect to registered vendors, the dominant
country like Douala, the national economic Graffi ethnic group carries out about 95 per
capital, Nkongsamba and Limbe (Figure 2). The cent of the mobile food service trade, the
basic economic structure is dynamic and the indigenous ethnic groups (Bafaw and
town is undergoing significant transformation. Bakundu) handle only two per cent, foreign
For all these reasons, Kumba is one of vendors, especially Igbos from neighbouring
Cameroon’s wealthiest urban centres, which Nigeria, command one per cent, and non-
together with the availability of economic and specific tribes two per cent (field survey, April
social amenities, industries and political 2001). The Graffi vendors’ reputation for high
institutions has resulted in a high population business acumen and pride in their products
density. According to KUC estimates (Kumba and services are distinguishing elements of
Urban Council, 2000), Kumba’s population had the food delivery system in Kumba. Like those
grown from 37,065 in 1976 to over 200,000 in in Diola, Senegal, the Graffi vendors are land
1998 (i.e. an increase of 540 per cent) due to in- poor and without a more culturally acceptable
migration from rural areas and other depressed agricultural option (Posner, 1983) but to search
districts of the country. With a total land area for alternative livelihoods.
of 188.4 km2, population density is 1,062
residents per km2. The existence of some 1,600 The Kumba region is also rich in
street food vendors works out to one for every agricultural resources due to fertile land and a
125 inhabitants. favourable climate. More than 80 per cent of
the active population of Cameroon is engaged
As a prospering conurbation, Kumba has in agriculture, the mainstay of the economy.
always had a strong attraction for migrants Food self-sufficiency, the main concern of the
seeking jobs generated by its urban functions national government, is sustained by
and activities. Economic activities of the providing farmers easy access to technical
informal sector now predominate the urban information, vital inputs and necessary means
space. For instance, the townspeople engage of production, as well as by supporting
in a wide range of low-cost, labour-intensive systematic efforts to organise the food sector
activities, such as craftwork, construction, into cooperatives and research on ways to

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138 Acho-Chi

Figure 2. The Kumba region of Cameroon.



(% )

Bafaw 1 30,000 15
Bakundu 1 40,000 20
G raffi 90,000 45
O ther tribes 30,000 15
Foreigners 10,000 5

TO TA L 200,000 100

Indigenous ethnic groups.
Source: Kumba Urban Council (2000).

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Mobile Street Food Service Practice in Cameroon 139

increase the productivity of smallholdings. The following section will look at the
Since 1992, Cameroon’s agricultural policy has characteristics of the street food vending
been geared to achieve food security through practice in Kumba and its significance as a
agricultural diversification and enhanced poverty reduction strategy, also highlighting
marketing and provision in both rural and the environmental pollution, depletion of
urban contexts. In this respect, because forest resources and the other risks that it
women play a crucial role in the utilisation of poses for urban ecology. Finally, some
foodstuff and guaranteeing access to cooked recommendations for policies and facilities to
meals, they constitute a major force in today’s stimulate street food vending and prevent
urban economy as earners, customers and negative environmental effects are proposed.
investors, particularly in the HMR business.
Cameroonian cuisine combines the different
regional staples with vegetables, fruits, and MOBILE FOOD PRACTICE
animal and fish products into six popular
national dishes, notably, ndole, achu (mashed The mobile street food service system depends
taro/yellow soup), vegetable/fufu, kwakoko/ on a number of factors such as resources,
mbanga soup and mbombo djobi, among other markets, locational competition and
local meat/fish dishes. There is strong affinity accessibility, which are in turn dependent on
for these typical meals which, particularly the growth and development of the basic
when eaten outside the home in an urban sector of the urban area. Tertiary industries
context, foster a sort of national pride and sense that produce goods and render services
of identity. Street food service points have also catering to the local urban society, together
become empowering public sites for social with allied service industries like hospitals,
networking where people relax, tell stories, factories, plantations, hotels, motor parks,
brag, and discuss politics, sports and business banks, administration, schools and markets,
ventures. As such, street food selling and support the economy of agglomeration.
consumption have become imbued with Nationally, Kumba is one of the first order
expressions of sharing and conviviality. All Cameroonian towns because of the
the more unfortunate, then, that the municipal concentration of high-order goods and
authorities have failed to provide the desired services. The economies that derive from
structure for an integrated system. agglomeration are those of movement,
specialisation and provision of municipal
Despite the fact that the Kumba urban services like potable water supply, basic health
space has assets and potentials for socio- nutrition and waste disposal. This situation
economic development, it is marked by influences the mobile food service system,
infrastructural deficits and resource which falls in the lowest rank order of
degradation. The urban environment is industries.
insalubrious, characterised by poor quality
housing, uninhibited traffic, clogged gutters The field surveys reveal that an average of
and organised crime. The city lacks an 233 customers routinely patronise a food-
adequate safe water supply, public toilets, and selling point daily, though 80 per cent of the
drainage and waste disposal systems. The itinerant food sellers interviewed enjoyed
streets are not only narrow and without clienteles exceeding this estimated average.
sidewalks, but are dusty in the dry season and Given the small-scale nature of the transaction
muddy in the long rainy season. Such and the modest spatial discriminatory meal
conditions raise serious questions about the pricing, 20 regular clients would provide a
site features where street foods are prepared good business turnover. The location of a food
and sold. service point is determined by two factors: the

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140 Acho-Chi

intensity of demand for food items and the Food Supplies: Provisions used in the
market demand for catering services. Table 2 home-prepared foods include plantains,
shows prices for the same units of food, ranging cocoyams, yams, cassava, grains, beans, rice,
between CFr50-300, with the typical cost vegetables, spices, chicken, fish, and red and
declining sharply with distance from the city game meat, usually supplied from different
centre (r = -0.9148) where rents are highest. This markets through intermediaries commonly
strong negative linear relationship is called buyam-sellams. While the food supplies
statistically significant at the one per cent level purchased reflect diverse cultural and
of significance with two degrees of freedom. economic factors, the general tendency is to
Owing to the critical seller-buyer-interaction minimise expenses and travel distances to and
potential, the mobile food service practice tends from the supply markets to reduce operational
to be localised; for instance, vendors buy fresh cost. Table 4 shows that the most important
food supplies locally which often links their urban supply markets are in the CBD, Fiango/
enterprises directly with contiguous farms and Three Corners and Mbonge Road, due to their
gardens (Winarno & Allain, 1991). Hence, the central locations (Figure 1).
location of food service sites ultimately
determines the level of success. Certainly, most Labour force: This study confirms the
competitive decision location models assume gender-specific character of the mobile food
that consumers patronise the closest shop service system in Kumba. The study sample of
(Bateman, 1988; Serra & ReVelle, 1999). 85 per cent female and 15 per cent male vendors
sufficiently characterises the target population
Capital formation: This key factor of the of 488 registered operators. This compares with
mobile food micro-enterprise concerns income the pattern in Iloilo, Philippines, where 79 per
and material goods used in the production of cent of the street food establishments are
further prosperity: flows of income are used operated/owned by women and 21 per cent by
to create a stock of riches, while assets are men (Tinker, 1997). Boys provide 30.6 per cent
drawn on to generate income. The main and girls 69.4 per cent of the labour input. Only
sources of capital that exist in Kumba are about five per cent of the vendors surveyed
banks, njangis or traditional rotating savings depend exclusively on salaried labour. Thus,
and credit cooperatives, customary kinship the mobile food service system in Kumba, as
networks and informal associations of friends. elsewhere in urban Cameroon, is not only
Aside from the difficulties in acquiring family-based but the occupation of women and
institutional loans faced by vendors with low girls, who perceive the income from the trade
education levels, the local banking system, as indispensable for both survival and
understandably, does not finance the empowerment. Girls play an especially integral
development of informal sector enterprises role in the complex web of informal sector
since the small size of capital required does activities to supplement household income
not cover the institutional procedural costs. (Fonchingong, 1999) and therefore are often
Given the ease of borrowing from customary deprived of basic education. This has been
and informal sources and a culture of high correlated with other social problems such as
family involvement in capital creation in the unwanted pregnancies, early marriages, and
informal sector, almost 90 per cent of the initial even prostitution. Given the dominant role of
start-up capital of the vendors surveyed is women in ensuring urban food security,
drawn from family and neighbourhood savings improved educational standards for girls would
groups (Table 3). Clearly, then, access to micro- seem to be more productive in terms of economic
finance arrangements in the form of loans with and social benefits in the longer term.
low interest rates play a dominant role in lifting
the urban population out of poverty and Transportation: In the mobile food micro-
towards self-sufficiency. enterprise, this involves the collection and

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Mobile Street Food Service Practice in Cameroon 141



(study zone) (CFr)1 (km)

Main Market Area (CBD) 300 0

Kake II, Bakoko (Mbonge Road) 100 3
Barombi Kang (Bakoko) 50 5
Three Corners (Fiango) 250 7

US$1.00 = CFr700.




Family 38 50.7
Njangi houses1 28 37.3
Friends 6 8.0
Banks 3 4.0

TOTAL 75 100.0

A form of customary and credit cooperatives.



(study zone)

Central Business District 25 33.3

Fiango/Three Corners 20 26.7
Mbonge 15 20.0
Barombi Kang (Bakoko) 10 13.3
Ekombe (Buea Road) 5 6.7

TOTAL 75 100.0

Acho-Chi.p65 13 5/31/2002, 3:53 PM

142 Acho-Chi




No. of Percentage No. of Percentage
vendors vendors

Trek/head load 10 13.3 19 25.3

Trek/truck-push 20 26.7 41 54.7
Taxi 45 60.0 15 20.0
TOTAL 75 100.0 75 100.0

assembly of supplies from various market job that I can find. I do not know of any other
outlets to home preparation sites and the way that I can pay my bills”.
transporting of home-prepared foods to
vending sites. The food service providers Daily working hours: The mobile food
establish a basis for action to ensure that the service system operates nearly throughout the
travel distances reduce operational cost. In day; work starts around 4 a.m. and ends at
locating a new food facility in a spatial market, midnight. About 43 per cent of the vendors in
in order to optimise one or several geographical the sample carry out their activities in the day,
and/or economic criteria (that is, minimising 27 per cent at night, and the remaining 30 per
transport and preparation costs – the only way cent operate throughout. The average daily
to make profits), the street food vendors usually selling period and weekly working days are 7.7
consider their knowledge of customer hours and 5.7 days, respectively. About 14
preferences. Generally, market inclination is customers are served in an hour, with a distinct
restricted by factors such as proximity, price service and delivery peak and fall-off at 2 p.m.,
schedules, range of essential foodstuffs and by which time the quality of any unsold food
social contact. is also often defiled. As most would-be
customers then gather in social groups for
Table 5 shows that about 27 per cent of the drinking and pastime, the vendors resort to
interviewees trek and truck-push supplies from selling beer and palm wine when the food sale
local markets as compared to 54.7 per cent items are finished. This emphasises the reality
using this mode to transport food to serving of flexible strategies for additional sources of
points. Correspondingly, 60 per cent of income.
vendors in the sample use taxis to get from
food supply markets but only 20 per cent use Location of food service points: Eating
them to transport food to service points, the places within Kumba are located in areas that
reason being that these are tied to nearby have high-density activities such as petrol
population-cluster economic activity. A gender stations, automobile garages, workshops,
division of labour in this everyday welding-, patch- and painting-units, motor
responsibility was observed at the food service parks, railway stations, marketplaces, and
sites. While men comprise only 15 per cent of construction, ceremonial and recreational sites.
the street food vendors, they handle 83 per In other words, maximum client capture is
cent of the transportation matrix. Women based on the gravity model (Cox, 1972;
engage in the transportation activity when, as Johnson, 1972; Hornby & Jones, 1995); for a
one female respondent put it: “there is no other given food operator, market capture is

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Mobile Street Food Service Practice in Cameroon 143




Good food quality/quantity 192 32.0

Proximity to residence/work place 136 22.7
Food on credit 120 20.0
Retailer’s character 104 17.3
Excellent client/vendor relations 48 8.0

TOTAL 600 100.0

especially assured if there are no competitors looked upon as a factor that shapes the
nearby. Access to a well-located point is an contours of that set. The critical success
important asset for an itinerant street food factors (CSFs) that define consumer choices
vendor. The choice of a food service point by include quality and quantity of food, location,
a potential consumer is guided by innovation, word-of-mouth promotion, service
considerations of easy access, transport costs, excellence and a clean physical environment.
relative distance of alternative food points and Table 6 shows that 32 per cent of the customers
pattern of land rents also influencing the cost sampled frequent a given food service site for
of a meal. Most customers surveyed declared the quality and quantity of the food, around
convenient locations as ranging between 5 m 23 per cent because of proximity and 20 per
and 500 m, except for those with favourite cent because food is offered on credit. The
eating-places that exceeded this range. personal character of the food seller is also
given much consideration and, finally, being
Two or more street food traders may share treated well. Overall, customers’ preferences
the same “shop space” as a matter of mutual generally depend on rational rather than
accommodation by rotating their operating emotional criteria.
schedules between day and night or operating
permanently either during the day or at night.
Seventy-six per cent of the food sites sampled
are shared between two or more operators. In POVERTY ALLEVIATION
this case, the rental fees due to the property
owner are shared out proportionately, with the Since 1987, the dire economic crisis in
first occupant of the site recouping part of the Cameroon has led to adverse cutbacks in
rent from the second, and so on. The monthly government expenditure, retrenchment and
rents of well-serviced locations in Kumba redundancies, reduced real wages (i.e.
range from CFr1,500 to CFr5,000, decreasing rocketing prices and currency devaluation)
with distance from the CBD, which has the and deteriorating national infrastructure. This
peak land value. Only about five per cent of has resulted in a dramatic growth of the
the street food vendors interviewed owned unregulated informal sector as men, women
property. and children eke out a meagre existence from
all manner of street vending, craftwork,
Choice of food points: Choice in any area prostitution and even begging. Pockets of the
presupposes the existence of a set of feasible urban poor in Kumba do not have access to
options, and the food service sites may be health and educational facilities and suffer from

Acho-Chi.p65 15 6/1/2002, 11:56 AM

144 Acho-Chi



Provide children’s education 27 42.2

Lack of alternative jobs 1 15 23.4
Husband lost job 10 15.6
Husband died 8 12.5
Divorced 4 6.3


All 11 male vendors in the sample gave this as the reason they got into the
street food trade.

inadequate sanitation and high foodstuff survival priorities defining urban life.
prices. This socio-economic milieu is Furthermore, 80 per cent of those in the sample
particularly harsh for women, the traditional also derived satisfaction and empowerment
guarantors of family survival. As incomes from engaging in the street food trade; as one
decline and prices soar, women and children vendor said, “We feel we have strength, and
must work for long hours inside and outside that it’s possible to be fulfilled, to be valued,
the home. Women cope with the growing work for what we do”. However, 35 per cent
burden by foregoing recreation and reducing indicated that their stay in the business was
their hours of sleep and leisure. Some women transitory, and 20 per cent did not know for
said that they reduced the time spent with their how long they might have to stick with it. Even
children, which means a lowering in standards so, over 95 per cent surveyed acknowledged
of childcare. Those who are breastfeeding face that they made substantial earnings, with the
acute problems and in extreme cases have even result that living standards are getting better.
abandoned children.
The typical prices for the same units of
In these circumstances, in the battle to ward food servings, ranging from CFr50 (at peri-
off poverty and unemployment by engaging urban locations) to CFr300 (at prime vantage
in family enterprises, the mobile food service points), easily translate into average daily
micro-enterprise creates employment, takings of up to CFr76,000. This means the
generates income and also acts as a food combined daily takings of the 488 licensed
energy-support instrument essential to street food operators in Kumba amount to an
economic activity within the Kumba urban annual total equivalent to about US$19.5
landscape. Table 7 lists reasons that the women million. The daily turnover of CFr76,000 yields
gave for engaging in the street food trade, a real income or net daily profit margin of
foremost being the desire to provide for CFr4,000, which when multiplied by the
children (about 42 per cent) and lack of average of 22.7 working days in a month gives
alternative careers (about 23 per cent). In fact, a net monthly income of CFr90,800. This is
the women also said they sell homemade food about 405 per cent of the legal minimum
in order to pay for urban utilities (such as water, monthly wage set at CFr22,500 and, on
electricity and rents), and support children and average, even more rewarding than the basic
aged family members. This clearly shows the starting wages of skilled employees in the
heavy responsibility that women carry in the formal sector.

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Mobile Street Food Service Practice in Cameroon 145

Certainly, then, the street food HMR contaminate the environment in different ways
business enables poor urban households to and by dissimilar routes. Cooked street foods
meet the basic needs of the family and buffers are exposed to environmental pollution from
them against falls in domestic income levels, dust and automobile exhaust (Dioup, 1992). In
thereby averting relative poverty. The growing Kumba, the street food vendors use 400-800
emphasis on global poverty eradication litres of water daily for drinking, cooking and
measures makes it imperative to consider washing of utensils, fetched from wells,
differences in urban financial capital (i.e. streams and rivers that are defiled by pollution.
savings, credit supplies and earnings) between In addition to unsafe food-handling practices,
urban haves and have-nots. For the time being, contamination by water, flies and faeces
however, the issue of improved incomes and causes diseases such as typhoid, dysentery
income distribution will depend, at least to and cholera. The local tropical climate and lack
some extent, on home factors, especially of refrigeration precludes storing most foods
government policy. Poverty reduction in the for later sale; as a result, common street foods,
urban as well as rural areas of Cameroon can particularly cold meals like rice/beans,
only come about through fresh policy vegetables, fruits and crushed rhizomes, are
approaches targeting the needs of deprived at high risk of contamination by pathogenic
people. bacteria. Such conditions underscore the need
for affordable low-input technology to ensure
proper food storage, cooking and warming.
Food and organic waste materials are
MENTAL CONCERNS biodegradable, but left to decay on street
corners, in marketplaces and backyards,
When metropolitan inhabitants introduce produce foul-smelling, visually unpleasant and
wastes into their bioregion of kinds and in unhealthy environments. Prioritising
amounts that they cannot neutralise or recycle, environmental quality would reduce ecological
the end result is the currently high-cost stress in the urban development process of
problems of urban ecology. Environmental Kumba. Not only the welfare of the poor urban
degradation is both a cause and an outcome households but their society and the land itself
of poverty (Rees & Smith, 1994; Williams, hangs on the balance.
1999). As the economic capital of South West
Province, Kumba assumes a commercial The main energy source for home cooking
function that encourages soaring human enterprises is firewood, and the pressure on
populations and differentials in income and urban woodlands is a mounting worry for the
consumption patterns. As the volume of KUC. In studies elsewhere, households
organic, household and municipal wastes engaged in the street food trade consume twice
continues to increase and concentrate in as much energy as ordinary households: 25
different parts of the urban agglomeration, it per cent more electricity, twice the amount of
constitutes a blot on the urbanscape. The fuel (i.e. all types of biomass), twice the amount
provision of urban services (water, sanitation of gas and four times the amount of charcoal
and public works) by the KUC is therefore (Tyler, 1990). The urban production of firewood
critical to any effort to upgrade both the certainly depletes the local tropical rainforest,
informal settlement and formal township areas. thus affecting other fragile ecosystems. There
is a need to safeguard the local urban forest
Presently, urban dwellers have to step over resource by introducing new, cheap and
wastes everywhere, and the generally poor sustainable energy sources such as greenbelts
hygienic condition of the city poses or woodlots within the Kumba urban space.
substantial threats to both human and Besides, the conservation of trees protects
ecological health. Liquid and solid wastes watersheds, and the follow-on urban forests

Acho-Chi.p65 17 6/1/2002, 11:56 AM

146 Acho-Chi

could provide local resources such as fruits, related to access to raw materials, skills, training
spices, vegetables, and game, which are also and information on market opportunities. In
essentials for the mobile food service practice. particular, women’s access to financial services
is often made extremely difficult by
RECOMMENDATIONS AND institutionalised gender inequity, despite the
fact that women are highly creative
entrepreneurs and adept at managing savings
and ensuring that earnings go directly to
The mobile food service micro-enterprise
meeting family needs. The municipal
involves very important elements of
government should adopt a rational approach
sustainable urban development, including the
for regulating the mobile food service practice.
convenient location of service points, low-
A complementary approach giving a greater
input technology, creation of alternative jobs,
role to self-employed people in tandem with
stores and linkages, and energy use. Mobile
micro-credit schemes utilising group
food vendors depend largely upon local
accountability instead of material collateral will
business conditions and provide essential
be a critical factor in local development
low-cost, nutritionally wholesome foods.
initiatives. The study reveals a pattern of 58
Consequently, the mobile food service system
per cent female and 42 per cent male global
is a critical consideration in economic planning
family labour inputs. This is an excellent case
and development in Kumba as well as in other
where current municipal government efforts,
developing towns in Cameroon.
bolstered by actions of local NGOs in poverty
alleviation, can provide appropriate technical,
On poor market days, the mobile food seller financial and educational support to empower
endures substantial losses due to wastage. urban women.
Thus, there is an urgent need to develop ways
of storing leftovers for later sale. The The vendors in the sample expressed
transportation, handling and storage of the strong reluctance to state categorically if they
homemade foods raise the additional problems derived any profits from the street food trade,
of safety standards and contents of food sold, further complicated by the itinerant, diverse
especially as infrastructural development in and temporary nature of street food vending
terms of water and sanitation is limited in operations. Nevertheless, the mobile food
Kumba. The KUC should design, construct service operators clearly deserve to have
and maintain the vending units and consider access to market information, commercial
traditional management expertise. Moreover, linkages, and capability-building and
it should be directly involved in improving the management knowhow to promote economic
productivity, welfare and profit potential of self-sufficiency. The street food practice is an
entrepreneurs and their food micro-enterprises important food energy-support dominating
in a sustainable way. Indeed, profit margins the urban environment, but, clustering around
can influence the rate of expansion and automobile repair units, markets, public places,
integration of modern cooking, storage and and bus stations (Foduoup, 1998), gets in the
warming technologies in the mobile food way of traffic, generates litter on the streets,
service scheme. The municipal government in markets and public places, clogs gutters,
can also impose affordable levies in order to pollutes the atmosphere, and degrades
improve its revenue base. surrounding areas. Hence, although vendors
satisfy a public demand, the urban authorities
The inability to find a viable and more commonly respond by forcibly removing them
lucrative economic activity drives poor people, from the more attractive areas of Kumba, like
especially women, into the informal economy the main market, government office precinct
where they confront a diversity of constraints and hospitals.

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Mobile Street Food Service Practice in Cameroon 147

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