Uganda’s hungry food vendors: counting the cost of COVID-19

Interviews as part of a new study show how lockdown restrictions are leaving Uganda’s food vendors hungry and vulnerable.

Christopher Busiinge's picture
Christopher Busiinge is research and communications associate at Kabarole Research and Resource Centre
11 June 2020
Women are sat at tables selling food a distance apart

COVID-19 has forced some food vendors in Fort-Portal to shift to selling fresh food to keep earning money during lockdown in Uganda. But there aren't many customers and food perishes quickly (Photo: copyright Kabarole Research and Resource Centre (KRC))

As I write this blog during the COVID-19 lockdown, over 450 food vendors in Fort-Portal municipality in the Kabarole District of western Uganda, are going hungry. These people serve food to others for a living. But now they are left depending on food donations from NGOs, government and family members. 

Uganda’s COVID-19 restrictions came into force on 18 March and stopped the vending of hot food. The selling of fresh foods could continue – but only in officially designated markets, and following strict operating procedures issued by the ministry of health.

In the first 35 days of lockdown this led to income losses of UGX 237,405,000 (US $64,000).

During April 2020, Kabarole Research and Resource Centre, in partnership with IIED and Hivos conducted a study examining the impact of the lockdown on the town’s food vendors (PDF). Twenty randomly selected vendors and leaders of Fort-Portal’s Food Vendors’ Association were interviewed. Food vendors and the association are part of the Fort Portal Food Change Lab seeking to drive local food system change. This sits under the IIED-Hivos Sustainable Diets for All programme.

Seeking alternatives

To comply with social distancing rules, the research was carried out on a one-to-one basis, in an arranged location where a two-metre distance could be maintained. 

Vendors shared the challenges of bring home income. A few had been able to change to selling fresh foods. But making this shift was difficult. And losses were heavy – fresh food perishes quickly and there are far fewer customers to sell to. 

Kobusinge Elizabeth explained how she tried to switch her business to provide for herself and her two girls. “I now sell vegetables and other fresh foods at Kabundaire Market. I only work two days a week because I don’t have a permanent space in the market. I’m new there. Today I’m only working for food – that is all. The profit margin is too small and I’m not able to save. I don’t know how I will be pay for rent.”

Others had found manual jobs on farms neighbouring the town. Although they earnt less than they would make selling cooked food, they at least earned some money to buy food for their families. 

Some vendors had chosen to violate the lockdown restrictions and returned to the streets to sell hot food. They knew it was a risk – but one they felt they had to take to survive. 

Once food providers, now hungry

The interviews revealed how vendors had used their capital and savings to survive the lockdown. This has left them vulnerable: from serving food to the town’s people, they were now dependent on handouts from others. 

Kemirembe Generous explained: “I stayed at home for two weeks and I found myself eating into my savings. I’m making some money selling vegetables in Kabundaire farmers market, but I’m making losses as I’m still learning about this new business. I’m losing my money and it’s making me worried – I’m not in position to save any more. Before the lockdown, I could save UGX 20,000 per day.”

With no money in reserve, regular outgoings – bills, school feeds, and loan repayments – will be almost impossible to meet. Rent will be hard to pay; vendors’ often small and crowded rooms might soon be up for grabs by other tenants who can cover the costs. The food vendors’ leadership expressed fear that some members might resort to extreme means to survive, including prostitution and thieving.

More uncertainty ahead

And what does the future hold? What will life look like post-COVID without a daily income, if vending cannot resume? 

As well as individual struggles, there will be knock-on effects for the local economy. The food vending business is mostly dominated by single mothers and creates a total daily income of UGX 6,783,000 ($1,800). This income provides essentials for the vendors’ households – but it also contributes UGX 3,628,660 ($973) a month in licence fees to Fort-Portal municipality, showing how food vending contributes to the city’s development. 

And from service provider to consumer – what about the town’s people who rely on vendors for affordable, and often nutritious, food? This food is a lifeline for thousands of the urban poor.

Tasty business 

A normal evening in Fort-Portal town – pre-COVID-19 – can be an exciting experience for revellers interested in trying out different varieties of street food. Foods include roasted chicken or goat’s meat, and traditional dishes like Katogo, a mixture of Matooke (cooking banana) and some combination of meat, offal, beans or peanuts.

Hot drinks such as spiced teas and porridge area also on the menu. Food choices – whatever takes your fancy – can be enjoyed into the middle of the night. 

On any given day you will find around 450 food vendors serving a variety of dishes to more than 28,000 town dwellers, including travellers. 

How can policymakers support food vendors?

The government needs to act, putting in place an economic stimulus package, preferably a low interest loan scheme. With a boost of low-interest capital, vendors would have the money to get back on their feet and recuperate from impact of COVID-19 restrictions.

Such measures could facilitate innovations such as constructing mobile shelters with the provision for social distancing. This would support safe ways of doing business while preventing the spread of the virus. 

But inclusivity is key here: any decision-making by policymakers on how to get food vending back up and running post-COVID must involve the vendors themselves. KRC and partners will be looking to initiate and facilitate dialogue between vendors and the ministry of trade, industry and commerce to find a practical way forward.