Sinenhlanhla Mncwango explores how development consultant Sajeev Nair and his CUTS team are turning the tide for Zambia’s food safety, working tirelessly on the front lines of an informal market that is largely unaware of its potential. Discover how these critical efforts are not only strengthening the health and welfare of local consumers but also opening up a world of export opportunities to the fruit and vegetable farmers.
Passionate about enhancing better food safety policy and practices in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, development consultant and consumer protection advocate Sajeev Nair dreams of a food-safe country where compliance to food safety standards is a top priority.
Dominated by small-scale farmers, the informal market underpins Zambian agriculture, yet not all farmers are fully aware of the importance of food safety. This is where Nair and his team step in. “I have worked with Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) International in various positions since 1999,” said Nair. CUTS is an international consumer think tank having it focus on among other things consumer welfare, rules based trade and effective regulation. CUTS is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2023.
“Our work involved conducting and coordinating research, capacity building, advocacy, lobbying, and establishing networks and coalitions at national and regional levels. The areas in which I have worked include competition policy, regulation and consumer welfare, trade, and investment in Southern and Eastern Africa.
“My recent engagement with CUTS since 2020 involved the development of project ideas, guiding and advising the team on resource mobilisation, project implementation, and financial oversight on behalf of the board.”
What initiatives are you pursuing to encourage food safety in Zambia?
Nair explained to FoodForAfrika.com that in order to promote food safety, CUTS works closely with organisations such as the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC), Zambia Bureau of Standards, and Lusaka City Council, National Food and Nutrition Commission and several non-governmental organisations in raising awareness about standards and also providing input to the development of the Food Safety Act under the Ministry of Health.
With the support of the Solidaridad Network, CUTS has been conducting research, training, and advocacy on enhanced food safety standards for fruits and vegetables via multi-sector engagement since 2020, he added.
“We have implemented several initiatives in collaboration with the Hivos Foundation and partners such as the Lusaka City Council to advocate for healthy and nutritious foods, focusing engagement through platforms such as the Lusaka food policy council,” he said,
“The interventions include advocating for better storage, handling, hygiene and sanitation facilities at local informal markets, raising awareness of good agricultural policies, and advocating for better regulation at marketplaces.”
What inspired all these food safety initiatives?
Nair believes one of the key focus areas for CUTS is promoting consumer protection and welfare. The importance of food safety is closely linked to one of the fundamental consumer rights, he said, for example, the right to health and safety.
In Zambia, food safety is a priority area due to weak regulation and implementation of food safety policies and regulations at various levels: the farm level, during handling and storage, and at the marketplace. Better food safety initiatives will benefit producers and consumers in terms of health and welfare, and enhance export opportunities for Zambian products.
“Small-scale farmers combat food insecurity because most of them cultivate maize and vegetables for own use and subsistence. They also support the informal markets. In fact, they assist with food security in the country,” said Nair. “However, their understanding is lacking on sustainable land use management, food safety and standards, and that is a significant issue that we have.”
He further explained that Zambia has many farmers who farm near sewers or drainage pipes, and some of their products have a high residue of bacteria that is prevalent in the communities. Apart from that excessive and unscientific use of pesticides, herbicides and other anti-microbial substances are a cause of concern.
There are also the use of prohibited pesticides and chemical that also used by some farmers who are unaware of the harmful effects. And when a consumer from the city purchases the product, they are not fully aware of the pre-consumption processes of the product.
That is why he hopes that the two types of markets present in the country, one for the middle class where they buy goods from super markets and established stores and other for the lower income groups, who mostly depend on informal markets to source food products. It is important to ensure that all sections of the society consume good quality food that is healthy and safe. He recalls a significant cholera outbreak that swept the country in 2017 due to water contamination and unsafe food, and he hopes for a future where small farmers fully adopt legal food safety measures.
“About six years ago we had a significant cholera outbreak in Zambia and the government banned certain small-scale trading practices like selling from a wheelbarrow or on the pavement just to minimise the effects, but soon after that, things slowly returned to normal,” explained Nair.
“We do have initiatives and legal framework on food safety, but people return to their usual habits after six months. We need to raise more awareness about food safety and good agricultural practices among the younger generation.”