Regulating Informal Food Vending in Times of COVID-19 and Beyond: Best Practices from Africa and Latin America

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Meat seller in Accra, Ghana
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Teresa Marchiori

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To learn how governments regulated informal vendors' economic activity in response to the COVID-19 crisis, WIEGO’s Law Programme started surveying the laws and regulations that states promulgated in response to the crisis, in May 2020. The research covered 64 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In October 2020, we commissioned  a second survey to collect new laws adopted by countries as the crisis evolved. 

Among the many interesting findings, one is striking: for the first time ever, in both regions, informal food vendors were legally recognized as essential economic actors. 

Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis laid it bare for all to see: informal food vendors are essential to guaranteeing food security by ensuring the continuity and adaptability of food distribution. As countries went into lockdown, movements of goods and people were limited and economic activities shut down. Governments, preoccupied with guaranteeing the availability of essential goods and services, compiled lists of essential activities that could continue operating. In 21 countries in Africa and 12 countries in Latin America, some form of informal food vending was designated as essential. 

As cases are rising again and new waves of contagion hit countries on all continents, national and local governments should take stock of the good practices and pitfalls that have emerged during the past months. But informal food vendors’ role as essential economic actors does not end with the pandemic. Legislators should use their learnings to design long-term strategies and enabling legal frameworks that protect and support informal food vendors – fully reflecting their contribution as providers of essential services. Here I discuss good practices and pitfalls that should challenge local authorities to rethink their approach to informal vending  and access to public space during the crisis – and beyond.

  1. Law drafting techniques matter: laws and regulations must clearly and expressly recognize informal food vendors as essential. The language used in laws and regulations that designated particular economic activities as essential, varied significantly. In some countries, lists of essential economic activities made general reference to food distribution, without specifically mentioning informal food vendors. This left local authorities with ample room for interpretation and discretion in implementing such provisions. Without strong coordination between authorities, national regulations were – in many cases – at odds with local policies towards informal vendors. In the municipality of Comas, in Lima, Peru – where all food distribution activities were allowed – authorities chose to privilege stay-at-home orders over provisions regulating essential economic activities and evicted informal street vendors selling food. In Paraguay, where all food distribution activities were designated as essential without further specification, the Ministry of Interior had to clarify in a public statement that street food vendors were indeed allowed to work.

    To ensure clarity and consistent implementation,  laws – and, specifically, local laws and regulations – must expressly designate informal food vendors as essential. Fourteen countries in Africa and 12 in Latin America did. Regulations in Montevideo, Uruguay, for example, expressly designated street food vendors as essential. This strengthened the position of the most vulnerable among informal food vendors vis a vis public authorities and their – too often – punitive stance.
  2. Informal food vendors can work safely – no matter where they sell their products. The great majority of countries in Africa and Latin America allowed markets to stay open during the pandemic. Conversely, only 25 per cent of countries in Africa and  46 per cent  in Latin America allowed street food vendors to work. Of these, only six (14%) in Africa and two (13%) in Latin America expressly designated street food vendors as essential workers. This left street food vendors – the most vulnerable among informal vendors  whose essential economic role often goes unrecognized – to bear the brunt of the crisis. 

    The reason for the preference of operating in “formalized” vending sites lies perhaps in the assumption that occupational safety and health (OHS) measures could be more easily implemented in such spaces, as opposed to stalls on streets and squares. But that need not be the case. Vendors can operate just as safely on streets and squares as in markets. The municipality of Montevideo, in Uruguay, for example, adopted detailed hygiene guidelines for all informal food vendors to follow, including: distancing between stalls, cleaning and sanitizing routines, safe handling of products, and asking that customers  “minimize the length of their stay in high traffic commercial areas”.  Through education and engagement with informal food vendors, new arrangements can emerge that ensure health and safety in all trading spaces – be they designated market places or unregistered vending spots.   
  3. Essential workers must work – and governments must provide the equipment and  infrastructure needed to keep them and their customers safe. PPE, hand washing stations and products for the cleaning and sanitizing of trading spaces cost a lot of money. Laws mandating OHS measures in trading spaces mostly did not specify who should bear these costs. The vague wording of the law played against informal food vendors, who had to bear the additional financial burden. Good examples of smart crisis management and a measure of social and economic justice come mostly from Africa. In 15 countries in the region laws called on ministries, local governments and owners or managers of markets to provide PPE, cleaning supplies and hand washing stations. In Namibia, regulations expressly made local authorities responsible for ensuring  safe working conditions in trading spaces. In Latin America, Bolivia is an isolated case where municipalities bore the additional costs for informal food vendors of doing business during the COVID-19 crisis. Following these leads, governments can take a fresh approach to informal vending and management of public space, and set up long-term measures to provide safe trading spaces for vendors and customers during and after the crisis.
  4. “Nothing for us without us”.  While informal food vendors play an essential role in food distribution and food security in both regions, they were mostly absent from decision-making fora in charge of the COVID-19 response. In Latin America, we found no evidence of the creation of spaces of dialogue with informal vendors by national or local authorities. Africa, on the other hand, provided some promising examples of inclusive decision-making. In Ghana, ministerial directives mandated that local public health committees include members of market associations. In Liberia, the President required market association leaders to work with the Ministry of Internal Affairs to regulate market operations. More of this is needed. Governments at the national and local level must create institutional spaces to systematically include informal food vendors in law making processes that regulate access to public space and informal vending.   

Top photo:  Henrietta Osei, who has been selling fresh meat in the Makola Market in Accra, Ghana, for about 10 years. Credit: Benjamin Forson

Informal Economy Topic
Occupational group