Journal of
African Studies and Development

  • Abbreviation: J. Afr. Stud. Dev
  • Language: English
  • ISSN: 2141-2189
  • DOI: 10.5897/JASD
  • Start Year: 2009
  • Published Articles: 233

Full Length Research Paper

Effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on the livelihood and food security of street food vendors and consumers in Nigeria

Majing Oloko
  • Majing Oloko
  • School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan, Canada.
  • Google Scholar
Regina Ekpo
  • Regina Ekpo
  • Department of Geography, Faculty of Physical Sciences, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna. Nigeria.
  • Google Scholar

  •  Received: 17 September 2021
  •  Accepted: 08 November 2021
  •  Published: 18 November 2021


Nigeria's local food economy was affected by state-imposed restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 in communities. Street food vendors and consumers are among local food system actors impacted by such restrictions because their livelihood and food security are contingent on daily operations on the street. Informed by a descriptive qualitative approach, we interviewed 31 street food vendors and consumers who shared their experiences on how the lockdown impacted them. Vendors reported various impacts, including losing income, customers, customer trust, and social connection. Street food consumers reported difficulties meeting their food needs and developing multiple coping strategies, including cutting back on fruit and vegetable consumption and food sharing. Both vendors and consumers would like to see measures put in place to allow them to operate safely in a future lockdown event. This study is timely as the country strives to balance human and economic health amid the pandemic. 


Key words: Street food vendors and consumers, livelihood, food security, COVID-19, Nigeria.


The Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic continues to impact health, social and economic systems with devastating consequences on lives and livelihoods worldwide (UNDP, 2020). As our understanding of the pandemic's impact evolves, emerging reports from Africa predict adverse effects on food systems actors' livelihood and food security (Ayanlade and Radeny, 2020; Zougbede, 2020) – these include street food vendors and the urban poor that rely on them.


As the pandemic progressed into different parts of Africa, countries introduced measures to curb the spread of the virus. These measures included restrictions on people’s movements, open market days, and business operations. Food retailing was deemed essential, and thus in many countries, including Nigeria, such service was exempted from a total shutdown.  However, reports show that the partial restrictions imposed on market operations and people's movement to reduce  the  spread of the virus also affected the livelihoods of street food vendors (Zougbede, 2020). We are yet to fully understand the extent of the problem as minimal data are available. Our research attempts to fill this gap by highlighting the experiences of street food vendors and consumers from Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria.


Street food vendors and consumers in Nigeria


We describe street food vending in this context as selling ready-to-eat food, usually on a small-scale in temporary spots or structures, or through consistent walking along roads, intersections, or market spaces. Street food vending contributes to Nigerians' local food economy and employment (Edeme and Nkalu, 2018; Anetor, 2015). In Nigeria, unemployed urban residents engage in street food vending because it is unregulated and requires minimal initial investment to establish. These actors primarily operate within the informal economy without proper social security. Their activities are mostly unregistered, without insurance and safe spaces to function. While the lack of regulation in the sub-sector may be viewed as an advantage by some vendors who barely make enough to pay taxes, it sometimes comes with risks. Study has shown those street food vendors in Nigeria experience harassment from state and non-state agents about taxes and other payments to safeguard their livelihoods (Chukuezi, 2010a). It has been suggested that the unregulated nature of street food vending puts women and children at additional risk of sexual harassment and child labour (Anetor, 2015; Ekpenyong and Sibiri, 2011). Thus, there is also a need for a gender-based and youth-focused approach to street food vending policies in Nigeria.


Similarly, a good number of urban residents in Nigeria rely on street food for nutrition. About 25% of food expenditure among urban residents in the country goes to street food (Zougbede, 2020). These consumers are part of low-income households that depend on small daily purchases to meet their food needs. However, concerns have been raised about the safety of street food in Nigeria. Street food is often displayed in open spaces without covering. Such unsafe food handling and storage practices can potentially result in food contamination and poisoning to consumers (Okojie and Isah, 2014). In a study that examined the hygienic practices of street food vendors in eastern Nigeria, Chukuezi (2010b) found that many did not adhere to safe food handling procedures such as proper food storage and clean food preparation spaces. Due to the significant role street food vending plays in safeguarding the urban poor's livelihood and food needs in Nigeria, scholars have called for more  research to strengthen   the  sub-sector  (Anetor,  2015;  Chukuezi, 2010b).


The research on street food vending in Nigeria has been approached from various perspectives, including the adverse social outcomes of the activity (Ekpenyong  and Sibiri, 2011), its socio-economic benefits (Edeme and Nkalu, 2018; Anetor, 2015), hygiene practices, and food handling knowledge among vendors (Okojie and Isah, 2014; Chukuezi, 2010). However, the COVID-19 pandemic presented an unprecedented challenge to street food vendors and consumers. These actors' livelihood and food security are interdependent and heavily contingent on daily access to spaces that facilitate their interaction. During the first wave of the pandemic, states in the country were under different durations of movement restrictions, introduced mainly in response to the virus's intensity in those locations. For example, Abuja (along with Lagos and Ogun states) was under the first round of 14 days movement restrictions set in the country, beginning on March 30, 2020. This initial lockdown period was extended by another two weeks after its expiration. Abuja would go on to be under 35 days’ lockdown. Prompted by the economic hardship the lockdown had on daily income earners such as street food vendors, restrictive measures began to be eased on May 4, 2020. Overnight curfews and mandatory mask-wearing in public spaces were also imposed. Experts predicted that lockdown measures would cause income decline and drive households into poverty and food insecurity across Africa (Bagnetto, 2020; Thurlow, 2020). It is important to note that in April 2020, the Nigerian government introduced measures to assist vulnerable households in managing the additional difficulties caused by the lockdown. Some of the measures included distributing food and a cash payment of twenty thousand naira to households registered in the National Social Registry. Regrettably, reports show that the food and cash distribution was not transparent, resulting in the most vulnerable not getting the help they needed at the time (Obiezu, 2020; Olawoyin, 2021).


Being a novel problem (that is COVID-19), there is a lack of research highlighting street food vendors' and street food consumers' experiences with the COVID-19 restrictions imposed at the onset of the pandemic in Nigeria. Many questions remain unanswered. First, how did the movement restrictions impact street food vendors and urban consumers of street food? Second, what was the nature of difficulties that consumers faced accessing street food, and how did they cope? Third, what can be done in the event of a future lockdown to safeguard street food vendors' livelihood and access to food for consumers that rely on them? It would take a while to fully understand the ongoing pandemic's impact on local food systems activities. However, we can draw lessons from actors who have lived through the first wave of restrictions to better prepare for the future.


Using a qualitative descriptive approach (Sandelowski, 2000), we attempt to answer these questions by  studying street food vendors and consumers within Abuja, Nigeria's Federal Capital Territory (FCT). 


Research approach and method


Our study was informed by the qualitative descriptive research approach [QD] (Sandelowski, 2000; Lambert and Lambert, 2012). Using a QD approach aims to provide a 'comprehensive summarization, in everyday terms, of specific events experienced by individuals or groups of individuals' (Lambert and Lambert, 2012 p 255). It is an effective approach to collecting straightforward and less theorized information that can be applied in policy and practice (Sandelowski, 2000). QD answers the 'what', 'how', 'who' and 'where' questions. Because it is not heavily interpretive, QD does not answer the 'why' question. Nevertheless, it is a valid and acceptable qualitative research approach because it emphasizes the presentation of facts about events logically and comprehensively (Sandelowski, 2000).  Thus, guided by QD's principles, we sought to examine how our research participants understood and interpreted the problem under study; to what extent the problem impacted them; and where they would like to see changes.


We used semi-structured interviews to collect data between July and August 2020. We interviewed 31 participants, 16 street food vendors, and 15 consumers of street food. These actors mostly operate within  markets  and  streets  in  the  centre  and  sub-urban settlements of Abuja. Most of our study participants are mobile actors who need to move around a lot to conduct their activities. In many cases, participants would not be in the same location every day of the week. Thus, we were limited in locating participants.


Study area


Abuja lies in the middle of Nigeria, as shown in Figure 1. In 2006, the population of Abuja was 1,406,239 (National Bureau of Statistics, 2016). Abuja is a planned city built to replace Lagos – the former capital of Nigeria. Abuja sits on the traditional territory of the Gbagyi Indigenous people. The Gbagyi people were relocated to make way for the city. Today, Abuja is an ethnically diverse city with people from various parts of the country who converge to work and operate their businesses. Abuja is not a street vending-friendly city. Street vendors face tremendous opposition from government authorities in the area. The city has grown out into suburban districts and satellite settlements that house many low-income residents who come to the capital to make a living. The cost of accommodation in the city is prohibitive. Such expenditure cuts into other needs like food, transportation, and medical.



We present the study results according to the three broad questions we put forward previously. How did the movement restrictions impact street food vendors and urban consumers of street food? What was the nature of difficulties that consumers faced accessing street food, and how did they cope? What can be done in the event of a future lockdown to safeguard street food vendors' livelihood and access to food for consumers that rely on them? However, we further broke down the results to show differences in food vendors' and consumers' experiences. First, we highlight the demographic and income characteristics of participants before participants' responses to the questions. Table 1 shows a summary of participants' demographic and income characteristics.



As shown in Table 1, the average age of vendors that participated in our study was 20.5, while that of consumers was 27.9. We found that more females were engaged in street food vending than males, as indicated in the number of participants in our study (12 females and four males). Additionally, most vendors (eight) average daily income is between 10-15 USD, followed by five participants who reported earning five to 10 USD/day, and three who make 15-20 USD/day. In contrast, seven consumers reported earning 5-10 USD/day, five said they earn an average of 1-5 USD/day, and three earn 10-15 USD/day. Also, 80% of consumers said their livelihood sources are street vending and sales related. Examples include water and traditional medicine selling, shoe repairs, and sale. The other 30% earn income from activities that require them to spend most of their day around markets and car parks. Examples include the sale of kitchen utensils, clothing, and commercial driving.


Table 2 summarizes the interview results. The most significant challenges that vendors faced during the movement restriction were income loss and the inability to meet daily needs such as food, medical, and transportation (due to the loss of income). Also, about 87.5% of vendors said customers were expressing concerns about the safety of the food they were selling – triggered by fears of the virus. Another 81% reported losing their regular clients, and 69% lamented missing the social connection and support they get from interacting with fellow vendors and customers daily. 



More street food consumers reported experiencing difficulty in three areas, meeting their food needs, accessing affordable food, and socializing with food vendors. Eighty percent also said the COVID-19 related restrictions got them thinking about the safety of street food. 


Regarding access to street food during movement restrictions, all participants indicated facing challenges locating street food and finding affordable food. Others mentioned having difficulties getting freshly prepared food and food that meet their preferences (73 and 60%, respectively).


As shown in Table 2, all participants reduced their daily meals to cope with the physical and economic difficulties accessing food.  Similarly, 93 and 80% of consumers reported engaging more in-home cooking and food sharing, respectively, during movement restrictions. In contrast, 60% of participants coped by reducing their fruit and vegetable intake.


All street food vendors would like to see more government assistance to support their livelihood in a future lockdown. Access to loans, emergency business funds, and medical assistance are some of the support participants mentioned. Vendors were also unanimous in their call for better access and exemptions to continue their livelihood daily and not on alternating days/time, as was the case in the study area. Eighty-one percent of vendors would like to have safer spaces to operate. This includes safety in terms of physical security and where they (vendors) can maintain hygiene when vending food. Another 56% would like to have the opportunity to belong to a vendors' organization to access peer support, solidarity, and information to enhance their businesses.


Consumers called for better access to clean spaces to access street food and interact with vendors. Others would like to see more government supervision on street food safety (87%), while 73% would like to see better assistance for food vendors to help them meet safety standards and run their businesses smoothly.


The effects of COVID-19 restrictions on street food vendors and consumers are an unprecedented problem. Thus, data in that area is still emerging. The research on street food vendors' socio-economic profile, activities, and compliance to food safety standards has been conducted in Nigeria (Omemu and Aderoju, 2008; Anetor, 2015; Okojie and Isah, 2014; Chukuezi, 2010). However, there is a gap in research on consumers of street food.


Our research adds to data on street food vendors and provides the needed perspective on consumers. Such data is vital for policy formulation, which scholars have called for, given the significant role the sub-sector plays in safeguarding employment and food security for the urban poor.


Socio-economic characteristics of street food vendors and consumers


Regarding vendors' socio-economic characteristics, participants in our study earn an average monthly income that is more than the country's monthly minimum wage, currently 77-80 USD/month (depending on the exchange rate). Our findings align with previous reports indicating the same trend in earnings by street food vendors in Nigeria (Omemu and Aderoju, 2008). Also, similar to our findings, studies show that more women than men engage in street food vending in Nigeria (Resnick, 2018; Chukuezi, 2010a). We also found that more young adult vendors between the ages of 21 and 25 (81%) participated in our study. The participation of young adults in our study may result from their availability to participate in our study or an indication of a broader demographic representation of that group in street food vending. Reports show that a significant proportion of youth in Nigeria are engaged in street food vending (Resnick, 2018). However, variations in gender differences were recorded in different parts of the country. For example, Resnick (2018) found that more men were engaged in street food vending in the town of Minna than Calabar.


The socio-economic profile of vendors in our study has implications for policy formulation. It appears the sub-sector is an essential source of employment for youth in the country's urban areas. With an unemployment rate of 40.8% for ages 15-24 in the second quarter of 2020, youth unemployment in Nigeria is significant (National Bureau of Statistics, 2020) and may worsen without proper interventions given the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic. Street food vending provides employment and can potentially offer a viable livelihood for youth since it pays over the country's current minimum wage.


Consumers of street food in Nigeria's urban areas are vital actors in the local food system, yet their experiences are underrepresented in research. About 18% of urban dwellers in Nigeria are considered poor [that is, living below the country's national poverty line of 137,430 Naira/approx. USD 361 per person per year] (National Bureau of Statistics, 2019). This figure is by no means a reflection of the variations in food and non-food expenditures in various parts of the country, more so for Abuja, a city with a high living cost. While all of the consumers in our study earned above the national poverty line of USD 361/year, many admitted that a significant proportion of their earnings go to supporting their families with needs such as accommodation, education, and medicals. Most of the consumers in our study also reported being the primary providers of their households. Thus, dividing their incomes among multiple persons' needs in a home drives them into poverty. Poverty has grave implications for food security. Participants rely on street food to meet their food needs and save money for other needs.


Street food vendors and consumers depend on each other for livelihood and food security, respectively. The unprecedented restrictions on movement and frequency of their operation affected their activities within the food system. Next, we discuss how these actors were impacted.


How street food vendors and consumers were affected by COVID-19 restrictions


As interdependent actors, both vendors and consumers reported missing the social connection they make from interacting with each other in public spaces. For most of these actors, their interactions go beyond a transactional interface. Instead, participants reported using times of selling or buying street food as an opportunity to chat, catch up on political happenings, and sometimes discuss pressing family or relational issues. Some vendors went further to describe their activities as a great support system because many leave their relatives in rural areas to eke a living in urban centers. Such a move can be difficult; thus, many find support from fellow vendors. This is what one participant had to say:


'We are like family. The women I sell my market with are my sisters. Although there is competition because we sell the same food, they help me when I need to rush to collect goods from the car park' (Vendor 02, July 9, 2020).


The social benefits that actors derive from participating in street food vending and consumption are seldom reported in research. Much of the study on street food vending in Nigeria is approached from a deficit perspective, with very little focus on the social areas that participants consider positive. Some exceptions (Anetor, 2015; Okoli and Cree, 2012) accentuate street vending opportunities. Okoli and Cree (2012), who studied the experiences of children and youth street vendors in Enugu, suggested that research on street food vending in Nigeria and other developing countries should consider highlighting those actors' voices and how they would like to be supported in their work. This proposition comes on the backdrop of the negative portrayal of street vending and actors. The COVID-19 restrictions impacted the friendships and support systems that vendors and consumers get from interacting with one another. A participant described it this way:


'I like to buy from the lady that sells food in the morning. It is a good time for me to eat before I go to set up my table. Now she is like an aunty to me; she has given me good advice on avoiding debtors. The movement restrictions made it hard for us to see each other because we don't live in the same area' (Consumer 10, August 4, 2020).


Further, all 16 vendors reported losing income during the lockdown periods. Eighty-seven percent of vendors said they lost up to 60% of their income, while 13% reported losing 70% of their income. The income loss was not entirely due to the inability to sell food but also due to the loss of customers' trust. Due to the pandemic, many consumers were inquiring from vendors about safety measures they took in preparing their food and whether they wore face masks during food preparation. Similarly, vendors reported that some consumers would not buy from them if they were not wearing face masks or hand gloves. Some vendors noted that these kinds of investigations were strange because customers are usually more interested in the price and taste of their food and not how the food was prepared or their appearances. Vendors reported losing their customers and customers' trust; hence, exacerbating the loss of income from limited operation due to pandemic restrictions. Consequently, many vendors were unable to meet their daily needs, including food needs.


Street food consumers' experiences reflected what vendors told us. Many consumers shared their concerns about the safety of the street food they consume. For most of these participants, food safety was the least of their problems until the pandemic. One participant said:


'I use to eat from any of the women in the park, but now I only want to buy from the one that puts her food in the cooler. One of them even gives us water to wash our hands. She never did that before COVID.' (Consumer 09, July 24, 2020).


Additionally, consumers lamented the increase in street food prices and the difficulty of accessing fresh food during the lockdown period. Some vendors had problems sourcing seasonal produce from traders, while others could not sell all of their food in a single day due to limited hours of operation. The losses that vendors incurred from those hitches were passed down to consumers in higher food prices and less food variety. These factors seem to have impacted consumers' ability to access affordable, fresh, and culturally preferred food, consequently affecting their ability to meet their food needs. However, consumers had to device coping strategies to manage the difficulties they faced.


Consumers’ coping strategies


In response to the access challenges they experienced, some consumers reported cutting back on the intake of vegetables and fruits. This move is concerning as study shows low consumption of vegetables among urban dwellers in Nigeria (Raaijmakers et al., 2018). On the other hand, scholars view street food as an entryway to boost nutritional security among urban residents in a country already struggling in that respect before the pandemic (Raaijmakers et al., 2018). Similarly, consumers also reported skipping meals, reducing food intake, sharing food with others, and cooking more to manage the difficulties with access during imposed restrictions. We found that female consumers were more likely to report skipping meals than their male counterparts. These trends are a reflection of acute undernutrition suffered by consumers during the restriction periods. Reports have warned that such COVID-19 induced short-term challenges can grow into chronic challenges for vulnerable groups in Nigeria (Thurlow, 2020). Hence, the need for appropriate policies to address future pandemic shocks on the most susceptible livelihoods and groups, especially for women who are more likely to bear the burden of food insecurity.


How street food vendors and consumers would like to be supported in the future


Vendors who participated in our study unanimously shared that they would like better access to operate and see more government assistance in the event of another COVID-19 related lockdown. Although participants understood why the limits had to be imposed, many felt that the economic toll on their businesses and families was not put into consideration. Thus, vendors would like government assistance in low-interest loans, personal protective equipment, electricity tariff breaks, and food assistance. Most vendors admitted that such resources might be hard to administer since they do not belong to a government recognized organization, thus, the call for belonging to a vendors' organization. In contrast, some lamented that being part of an organization might expose them to government records and taxes – something that participants say they would like to pay if they know where and how the money will be used to improve their lives. It is estimated that Nigeria loses up to 56% of its potential tax revenues to the informal sector (Tonuchi et al., 2020). Many vendors have reported avoiding tax agents and losing their goods, money, and sometimes experiencing bodily harm in the process. Many lamented not seeing positive changes in the markets and streets they operate after years of paying taxes.


Further, the local food system structure in which street food vendors in Nigeria operate makes enforcing food safety and handling regulations a challenge. In most cases, street food is pre-cooked in a separate location (often homes) than where the vending happens. Some that cook on the street do so in temporary, usually open stalls or spots. The vendors we spoke with understand the need to maintain hygiene in food preparation and would like to have access to spaces where they can safely prepare and sell their food. The need for clean spaces for street food vendors was especially critical during the restriction period because customers began showing concerns about hygiene and food safety due to the pandemic.


The kind of support that consumers were calling for was in line with vendors' requests. Consumers felt that support for the livelihood of street food vendors would translate into support for them. For example, consumers thought that their ability to access affordable food in clean and safe spaces is predicated on vendors getting government assistance to strengthen those areas of their operation. This line of thinking underscores the need for a system approach to enhance the sustainability of local food systems in Nigeria, to safeguard the livelihoods and food security of street food vendors and consumers in a future lockdown. 


Street food vendors contribute to local economies and the food security of low-income urban residents. Street food vending has become a vital employment source for the growing unemployed youth in Nigeria and more so, for women, who tend to carry the burden of food shortages in households. The COVID-19 pandemic presented an unprecedented challenge to food systems and food systems actors worldwide, including street food vendors and consumers in Nigeria. Before the pandemic, these actors were already struggling to safeguard their livelihoods and food security in a country where poverty and nutritional insecurity are rising. Although research has been done about street food vendors' activities in Nigeria, there is scarce data about their experiences with the novel COVID-19 imposed lockdown. Vendors and consumers who participated in our research reported being affected by those restrictions in several ways. Vendors experienced income loss from a decline in sales. Other vendors lost customers' trust as consumers needed assurance about food safety in the wake of the pandemic. On the other hand, consumers experienced hardship accessing affordable, fresh, and culturally preferred food due to restrictions on movement and vendors' operations. Both vendors and consumers reported missing connecting and bonding with each other – a benefit that is often overlooked in research. Vendors and consumers would like to see better government support in securing safe and clean spaces to operate. Vendors would also want the opportunity to belong to a vendor's organization to access government and peer support. As the world continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, food systems need to be strengthened to respond to changes with minimal impact on actors' livelihoods and food security. We provide five recommendations to make local food systems work for street food vendors and consumers. These recommendations can also be viewed as areas for future research.


1. Street food vendors should have access to government-subsidized nationwide standardized food handling training to bring them up to date with current food safety guidelines and practices, including safety during pandemics.

2. Local government councils should consider creating designated pop-up street and neighbourhood markets with proper sanitation and clean spaces for vendors and consumers to meet. Safety nets like face mask requirements and social distancing can be maintained in such spaces if the need arises.

3. Local authorities must invest in educating street food vendors about taxes. On their part, governments must remain accountable in delivering socio-economic security to support such taxpayers. A transparent and straightforward channel must be created to collect taxes from vendors with dignity and respect.

4. Local authorities must sensitize and encourage street food vendors to register their businesses to enable them to access social services, information, and loans, including government assistance that may become available in the event of a pandemic lockdown.

5. State governments, in collaboration with food producers, should consider creating local food hubs where street food vendors and other actors can access food locally in a lockdown situation. This move can reduce scarcity and street food price hikes in a lockdown situation.


The authors have not declared any conflict of interests.


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