REPORT: How Open-air markets are a weak link in the fight against COVID-19

By Soila Kenya and Seun Durojaiye

LOUD, raucous, congested, smells of ripe fruits, roast meat and food wafting in the air as vendors cry out their wares. This is standard fare in an open-air market across Kenya and Nigeria. These informal markets are a major avenue for the exchange of goods and services. From fresh farm produce like vegetables and fruits, to clothing items and herbal medicine. Items are generally cheaper than in the more organised retail stores and supermarkets and are important to urban dwellers in some of Africa’s most rapidly growing cities.

Open air markets provide a means of livelihood for a majority of the population in Africa. They provide an intimate connection between the urban populations who need accessible and affordable food and rural farmers who sell their surplus crops. This symbiotic relationship was disrupted with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Abuja and in Nairobi, the capital cities of Nigeria and Kenya, respectively, open-air markets were closed down following travel restrictions and lockdown measures imposed by the governments.

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These closures disrupted the food supply for urban and local residents, leading to an increase in the prices of some food items, including staples such as rice and maize. A survey of 11 countries— including  Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo —conducted in June 2020 by the International Committee of the Red Cross found that 85% of the respondents said food was available in their local markets. But 94% reported that prices had increased, and 82% said incomes were down, hence low purchasing power.

Monthly Wholesale Rice Prices in Nigeria (Naira_ kg)

On the other end of the spectrum, market traders, majority of whom are women, lost income during the lockdown, automatically pushing them deeper into the poverty spiral. The United Nations (UN) estimates that between 83 and 132 million globally have been plunged into food insecurity due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
A report released by the UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme, indicates that an estimated 47 million women worldwide will be pushed into poverty due to the pandemic further widening the gap between men and women who live in poverty. 

Monthly Wholesale Rice Prices in Nigeria (Naira_ kg)

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As Kenya and Nigerian governments lifted the lockdown regulations and ease travel, the observance of the basic guidelines which were put in place to stop the spread of the virus. In the open air markets, vendors and customers are packed together like sardines, making it impossible to maintain the one metre social distance recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is a reality, Teresa Kinyari, a clinical epidemiologist and lecturer at the Department of Medical Physiology, at the University of Nairobi Medical School, describes as ‘risky’ in limiting the spread of the virus.’

“In terms of the public health measures, what is really important is to combine all the measures. So masks are not enough because they will only protect you when you cough or you sneeze. And when you speak or when you shout, the droplets will actually be emitted.

“But it’s important for them to keep a one-meter distance in the open market, because that then reduces the transmission. And if they don’t cover their nose, then they are at risk of breathing in the virus, if it’s in the environment,” Kinyari, said.

In Nairobi, visits were made to Gikomba, Kenyatta, Maasai and Toi markets and to Wangige market in Kiambu county. In Abuja, Dutse, Karimo, Wuse, Garki, 3rd Avenue and the Farmers’ Market, were visited.

Poor sanitation, a common challenge presented in these markets, exacerbates the risk level of transmission. According to the WHO, the provision of safe water, sanitation and waste management are essential for preventing and for protecting human health during all infectious disease outbreaks, including COVID-19. But this is not available in most of these open-air markets.

In both cities, a lack of resources and adherence to COVID-19 preventive protocols in open-air markets, defeats the fight against the virus.

Seeing is believing: In Abuja, the majority of the vendors and their customers know of the virus but do not believe they can be affected since they do not know anyone who has been infected or recovered from the disease.

Since recording its index case of COVID-19 in February, Nigeria’s approach to subduing the novel coronavirus was to impose strict lockdown measures, including closing down markets and banning public gatherings. For prevention, it mandated the use of face masks and hand sanitisers for citizens. At the start, its method was promising but its efficiency in fighting the virus quickly became a shortfall for its economy.

In the second quarter of this year, Nigeria’s economy contracted by 6.1%, according to the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

In an attempt to revive the economy, the government began easing the lockdown. In May, commercial activities resumed in Abuja. Once again, markets became filled with sellers and buyers, who had to adopt a new hygiene culture of regular hand washing and wearing of face masks.

“When the virus first came, they closed the market. Later they said we could only sell for a few days in a week and that we had to wear face masks and use hand sanitizers. I complied so that police people won’t disturb me. But now no need again,[sic]” said Yusuf Ahmad, a vegetable and provisions trader in 3rd Avenue market, Gwarimpa, a developed district situated in Abuja Phase 3.

According to Ahmad, he comes in contact with at least 100 customers daily, from when he opens shop around 7AM. For each customer, he serves, using his bare hands, before a final exchange of cash.

Nigeria as of September 24, had over 57,000 cases of COVID-19. Abuja accounts for over 5,000 of those cases according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC.These figures are, however, insignificant to Ahmad. He believes the existence of the virus is only theoretical.

“I don’t believe coronavirus is in Nigeria because, since March, I haven’t heard or seen anyone contract the virus. The government only talks about it and the numbers keep increasing in the news, but I don’t see it,” Ahmad says, while accepting delivery of some new stock from another trader without using any protective gear.

According to the WHO, the most effective measures of preventing the spread of COVID-19 include regular hand washing, observing social distancing and constant use of face masks. These practices have now become outdated to sellers like Ahmad and others like him in some of Abuja’s most vibrant markets.

At Dutse market located on the fringes of Abuja which is popular with residents, the market was packed as usual. Vendors and their customers alike were not wearing masks or taking any precautions as advised by the government.

Jerry Samson has since 2009 made a living out of selling garri, a staple food in Nigeria made from cassava, COVID-19 has disrupted his business. However, the virus is not enough to be considered life-threatening.

“I’m not afraid of COVID-19. I believe that the virus is in the country, but it doesn’t scare me. I’m not afraid because I come out daily for business and nothing happens.

“There are worse things in Nigeria than COVID-19. Hunger that we are facing is worse. Can someone who hasn’t eaten be afraid of a virus?,” Samson quizzed rhetorically.

In reality, while COVID-19 has infected over 57,000 and caused over 1000 deaths according to the NCDC, food insecurity is an age-long problem for Africa’s most populous nation. Nigeria ranks 93rd out of 117 qualifying countries in the 2019 Global Hunger Index, indicating an acute level of hunger in the country.

With COVID-19, food security has become more precarious. According to the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises by the Global Network Against Food Crisis (GNAFC) and the Food Security Information Network (FSIN), between June and August, at least seven million Nigerians were experience acute hunger.

“The number of acutely food-insecure people during the June–August 2020 lean season is forecast at 7.1 million, over 40 per cent up from the same period last year,” the report projected. An estimated 75% of adults in Nigeria had skipped a meal due to a lack of resources in 2020, nearly three times the proportion that reported doing so in 2018/19 according to the World Bank

Emmanuel Peter, who is a regular customer at Dutse market shopping, the convenience and the prices of food in the market far override any concerns he may have about the virus. The virus is the least of his problems, he says. His immediate concern is to get the most food he can get with the little money he has as the food prices had risen since the lockdown. Peter believes his immune system is strong enough to weather the virus if at all he gets infected. 

Emmanuel Peter, customer at Dutse market exchanging cash for goods with trader. PHOTO: Samuel Olubiyo

“COVID-19 is just like malaria, which has come to stay. There are many other problems facing Nigeria, not just this disease. Look around you, everyone is feeling cool. They should leave us alone and stop disturbing us,” Peter said, referring to the frequent messaging on radio and television which has dominated the airwaves and newspapers.

The dangers of COVID-19, is not breaking news to most sellers and buyers in Karimo market, another busy market located along the Gwagwa-Karimo Way, another satellite community in Abuja. But having knowledge of the virus doesn’t prompt compliance to COVID-19 preventive measures, among them.

Unlike other regular markets in Abuja, Karimo’s busiest days are on Tuesdays and Fridays. These are the days bales of second hand clothing and other such items are opened for bulk and retail purchase. It is also home to buyers who desire to purchase in bulk and at cheaper rates. For the benefit of  the market is usually crowded and during the visit, only a handful were wearing face masks, all others present at the market were without face masks.

While local markets ignore dangers presented by COVID-19, things are better organised in markets under the Abuja Markets Management Ltd (AMML). AMML manages fourteen markets within the FCT, including Wuse and Garki markets which were visited.

In Wuse market, located in the heart of the city of Abuja, a different approach to dealing with the new realities COVID-19 presents has been adopted. For them, survival of their business trumps personal convictions and beliefs about the nature or existence of the virus.]

Trader washing hands at Wuse Market. PHOTO: Samuel Olubiyo

Lucky Ojeh, a cloth seller in the market disclosed that, observing preventive protocols has become paramount to the smooth running of their businesses. As such, traders have come together to provide hand washing facilities for customers.

“The government is helping in creating awareness. In this market, the traders have contributed to buy the buckets for water, and soaps so we can observe the preventive protocols,” Ojeh said.

The market management also plays a role in ensuring that measures put in place are complied with. From the entrance visitors are scanned with infrared thermometers and those without face masks are not allowed into the market.

A security man who identified himself as Abubakar earns his day’s pay by ensuring strict compliance with usage of face masks. He stations himself at the gate of Wuse market, instructing visitors to use their face masks before entering the market. 

Abubakar, security man at Wuse Market ensuring compliance of COVID-19 protocol PHOTO: Samuel Olubiyo

“On a daily basis, we get hundreds of visitors and I make sure they use their masks before they enter the market. It’s the only way to prevent the spread of coronavirus,” Abubakar said. 

On a strategic level, a joint monitoring Taskforce of Management and Traders was set up to gauge level of compliance in the markets. 

But beyond driving compliance, more drastic measures have been implemented in Garki market to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Innocent Amaechina, Corporate Affairs Manager, AMML, in an interview explained that during the peak of COVID-19, canopies were used to set up neighbourhood selling points in an attempt to encourage social distancing. 

On a larger scale, an e-commerce website ( which was launched in 2019 became a promoted alternative. Traders were encouraged to join the platform which provides an avenue for customers to access goods they would ordinarily visit the market to purchase.

With almost 85 million mobile internet users in Nigeria, according to Statista, shopping on an e-commerce platform appears to be a viable option and could be key to curbing the spread of the virus in open-air markets.

Creating a new approach to shopping at these local markets projects as an effective response to preventing the spread of the virus but implementation remains a challenge. 

Nigeria is currently experiencing the community transmission phase and open-air markets are an automatic arena for mass spread says Joy Shimang, a Medical Laboratory Scientist with a speciality in Virology. As such, it stands to suffer adverse effects that go beyond recording high numbers of COVID-19 cases to affecting the health system’s capacity to provide other essential services.

While the country still struggles with a fragile healthcare system, it has demonstrated capacity to respond to the increasing threats of infectious diseases outbreaks and other public health emergencies. When Nigeria recorded its first Ebola case in 2014, its approach to preventing the disease from getting widespread marked a new level for the NCDC.

But its management of infectious diseases can be classified only as reactive. According to Shimang, during the peak of COVID-19 spread in Nigeria, spot testing which were carried out in Utako and Mabushi communities of the FCT, didn’t extend to other areas, even open-air markets – the one place she recommends testing should be carried out.

“In the quest to prevent the spread of disease, nothing can be too much, community testing will provide better information to guide decision/policymakers,” she said. 

While Abuja open markets struggle to get it right, in Nairobi, the atmosphere is different.

Nairobi: Buyers and sellers taking some precautions but not practising social distancing

For the majority of Nairobi residents, shopping in open-air markets is a no-brainer. From affordable fruits and vegetables to mitumba (second-hand clothing) to household items, these markets offer buyers lower prices for goods than what they can get in the formal markets and supermarkets.
Open-air markets were closed immediately after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in March. The closure was to enable the fumigation and cleaning of the markets. The closure disrupted the supply of food to urban dwellers and the rural farmers who provide the food.

On a good day, the Gikomba market located just a few minutes walk from Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD), is a bustling cacophony. Sellers are not afraid to approach potential customers coaxing them to their stalls and sometimes grabbing their hands to pull them towards their merchandise.

The situation has largely remained unchanged even with the coming of COVID-19. “The government has done nothing for us and business has really gone down,” says Aaron Mucheni, who sells second-hand women’s dresses.
For many of the vendors, the restrictions and the one-month closure of the market has meant they have to catch up on the income lost during that period. Some have increased their prices —particularly for second-hand clothing and foodstuff such as rice, edible oil, fruits and vegetables which are imported from Europe, China or trucked in from neighbouring countries.

While the majority of the sellers were wearing masks, this has since changed with the easing of the restrictions. It is impossible to maintain the one-metre physical distance recommended between the vendors. And although there are handwashing stations still available, not every vendor has one as was common in the early months of the pandemic.

At Toi Market, a few vendors have set up handwashing stations and one or two even provide sanitisers for their customers. Apart from vegetables and fruits, the market is popular with customers who seek bargains for high end ‘vintage’ (second hand) clothing items. “We know we have to keep our customers safe so if one comes without their own sanitiser I offer them mine,” says 27-year-old Mark Shumbe.

Toi Market traders are contributing to fill up these water jerry cans to maintain hygiene within the market. PHOTO: Soila Kenya

There is total disregard of the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Industrialization, Trade and Enterprise Development which direct county governments who manage the open air markets to prepare lay out plans with markings on the ground creating at least a one-meter distance between sellers and another line which buyers should not cross, to ensure they maintain the physical distance to curb the spread of the virus. The fruit and vegetable vendors have also disregarded the guideline to sell their wares on raised platforms in open-air markets for the simple reason that this would take more space.

The Maasai Market, a popular art and craft market, known for its beadwork jewellery, hand-woven cloth materials and furnishings has reverted to its old location at the Nairobi Law Courts parking space after the traders were unable to access the shopping malls and other ‘formal’ settings to set up their markets. The vendors have the space to maintain physical distance and are also responsible for providing handwashing stations for themselves and their customers. Kenyatta Market is a built up market with stalls which enable the vendors to maintain some distance. There are also regular points to wash hands within the market that is supplied through a water tank.
The market, known for its hair salons, tailors and nyama choma (roast meat) oints has also reported a significant dip in the number of customers. Many of the market stalls were closed when we visited the market. “Many of those who have closed can no longer afford the rent,’ Tessie Njambi who runs a stall selling hair and beauty products says. She has opted to knit and sell baby blankets to supplement what she earns from her stall.

Hairdressers at Kenyatta Market wearing masks while working on a client. PHOTO_ Soila Kenya

She and other stall owners nearby were all wearing masks and had installed handwashing stations at the entrance of their stalls. Tessie says some of the guidelines, such as those requiring people to wash their hands before they enter the stop—should continue post-COVID-19.

Anthony Mbogo works at the Hai-Hai butchery (famously known as B6). It is an eatery made famous in 2016 when President Kenyatta patronised the stall and spent Sh21,000 (US$192) on roast meat, traditional vegetables, Kachumbari (salsa), ugali (meal made from corn flour) and soda.
Prior to COVID-19, Mbogo was able to serve at least 20 customers at a seating squeezed into the benches that line one side of the eatery. On a good day, he would serve at least 200 customers. But since COVID-19 happened, Mbogo says he can only accommodate 8 customers at a time —four at each of the two tables.

Anthony Mbogo who works at the famous stall B6 where President Kenyatta has visited. PHOTO_ Soila Kenya

“We had to switch to take-away service since March, but now we can have a few customers seated here to eat. This means that business has reduced, but we thank God for the little we are getting,” he says.

Dalmas Omollo, a clinical officer at Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) based at the nearby Kibera informal settlement says the organization has been carrying out sensitization campaigns within the Toi and Kenyatta markets. Together with community health volunteers, the organisation has been educating the vendors on proper handwashing, the signs and symptoms of COVID-19, how to protect themselves and what to do if they suspect they have the virus. The organisation has been providing free water to the vendors at Toi and other markets in the informal settlements.

At the outskirts of Nairobi County, Wangige Market in Kiambu County has set up strict rules for buyers and sellers. Nobody is allowed to enter the market without wearing a mask and washing their hands with the water provided at the various entry points. The market known for its sale of vegetables, fruits, chickens and eggs, has also implemented wide distances between the sellers, allowing for physical distancing. The market is cleaned every evening. Each of the stall owners pay Ksh50 per month ($.50 cents) for the water, soap and the custodians posted at the market entrances to ensure people wash their hands before entering.

George Ng’ang’a, a member of the markets committee said the Kiambu governor, James Nyoro initially shut down Wangige market among 5 other markets on 26 March for failure to comply with COVID-19 safety measures. Before reopening, the market space was fumigated. “Lots of the sellers out there on the street are not washing their hands because there is no water. And that is very bad,” he says, referring to the sellers who are stationed on the roadside and just outside the market.

George Ng’ang’a, a trader at Wangige Market. PHOTO_ Soila Kenya

But it has not been gloom and doom for some enterprising individuals who have taken the opportunity to set up car-boot ‘shops’ where they offer fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs and other food items. They source these items directly from farmers but mainly from the open air markets and then sell to those afraid to go to the open air markets. They park their cars by the side of the road, open up their car-boots and offer their produce for sale. The downside to this is that they, unlike the open air market vendors, do not pay any license fees or taxes.

Traders outside Wangige Market selling food out of car boots. PHOTO_ Soila Kenya

Others have utilised social media and e-commerce to provide fearful residents with fresh fruits and vegetables. For example, Eazi Pizi fruits and vegetables have created their own niche. The three women behind the venture source fresh produce from the open air markets and deliver this to their customers. Unfortunately many of the e-commerce businesses do not cater to the ordinary citizens and that is why thousands of people still throng the open air markets in search of a deal and a sale.

All over the country, different county governments are engaged in upgrading markets in their jurisdiction. The upgrades, many of them initiated prior to the pandemic, are however unlikely to benefit the majority of the traders in the open air markets who may not be able to afford the paying taxes and fees such as cess, county government fees, KRA turn-over taxes among others.

In Kwale, the county government has put in place a walk-through sanitising shower stall at the entrance of the market. Sellers and visitors to the market are hit with a cold mist of spray containing a disinfectant which is supposed to kill the COVID-19 pathogen.

However the WHO says spraying can be ineffective and that the chemicals are dangerous. “Spraying or fumigation of outdoor spaces, such as streets or marketplaces, is not recommended to kill the COVID-19 virus or other pathogens, because disinfectant is inactivated by dirt and debris,” explained the WHO.

“This could be physically and psychologically harmful and would not reduce an infected person’s ability to spread the virus through droplets or contact,” said the document. “Spraying chlorine or other toxic chemicals on people can cause eye and skin irritation, bronchospasm and gastrointestinal effects,” it added.

Customers and vendors alike have been encouraged to use M-Pesa payments to limit the risk of transmitting the virus through the exchange of cash. Safaricom waived fees on M-Pesa for transfers under Sh1,000 shillings ($10), while another provider Airtel has waived charges on all payments through its platform Airtel Money.

The Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) also increased the transaction limits and the amount customers can hold in their mobile wallets.Transaction fees on payments of bills and transferring cash to bank accounts were also introduced to discourage the use of banknotes.

Between January and March 2020, a total of Sh1.087 billion was traced through the mobile money platforms, an increase of 2.1% (Sh22.3 billion) during the same period last year (Sh1.065 trillion).

In July, Kenyans transacted Sh450.9 billion (USD$4.18 billion) on mobile phones due to the increased uptake of the service on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. A report by the Central Bank of Kenya shows that usage rose from 3.6 billion dollars in June to 4.18 billion dollars in July which is the biggest jump ever. The number of mobile money subscribers during the month surged to 62 million as monthly transactions clocked 158 million, according to the CBK.

Approach to curbing coronavirus in other African countries

In Nairobi, the government ordered markets to adopt a ‘new layout plan with markings on the floor separating sellers from each other’ and for everyone to wear masks. These lines were drawn but nobody observes them and in fact, the masks have become chin accessories.

In Abuja, the government issued a directive that traders and their customers observe handwashing protocols, but it’s not adhered to because many of the markets do not have access to water or hand washing facilities. For example, in Dutse and Karimo, two of Abuja’s busiest markets, there are no handwashing facilities. Visitors are often running into thousands weekly and can easily gain access, without use of facemasks or hand sanitisers. Even if there were to be such facilities in Karimo Market, it is not structured in a way that it can accommodate such, not even if there were monitoring officers on ground.

The pandemic has laid bare the need to re-think the design of our open air markets. From adequate water sources, to planning and design of the market spaces.

In Ethiopia, the government is redesigning the country’s markets to stop the spread of COVID-19. The redesign will include spaced queues, physical distancing markers between shoppers and safety barriers between vendors and shoppers and hygiene stations at the entrance of the markets. Local streets adjacent to the markets are being used as an extension of the markets with specific markers to designate spots for the women’s market.

To decongest the markets, some of the traders have been relocated to other open spaces, For example, in Fara Gebya market in Hawassa city, 280 traders have been moved from the market to a new site as the main market is being redesigned.

In Kampala, to decongest the Kalwere market, mounds of garbage which were adjacent to the market were cleared out, so that more vendors could set up their wares and decongest the market. A few of the vendors have also taken up the Market vendor app developed by the Institute for Social Transformation, a Ugandan charity, which enables the vendors to sell their goods and then get motorcycle riders to deliver the goods to their customers. The women are paid through the platform.

In Kenya, customers and vendors alike have also been encouraged to use Mpesa payments to limit the risk of transmitting the virus through the exchange of cash. Safaricom waived fees on M-Pesa for transfers under Sh1,000 shillings ($10), while another provider Airtel has waived charges on all payments through its platform Airtel Money.

The Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) also increased the transaction limits and the amount customers can hold in their mobile wallets.Transaction fees on payments of bills and transferring cash to bank accounts were also introduced to discourage the use of banknotes.



    Between January and March 2020, a total of Sh1.087 was traced through the mobile money platforms, an increase of 2.1% (Sh22.3 billion) during the same period last year (Sh1.065 trillion).

    In July, Kenyans transacted Sh450.9 billion (USD$4.18 billion) on mobile phone due to the increased uptake of the service due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A report by the Central Bank of Kenya shows that usage rose from 3.6 billion dollars in June to 4.18 billion dollars in July which is the biggest jump ever. The number of mobile money subscribers during the month surged to 62 million as monthly transactions clocked 158 million, according to the CBK.

    For the majority of market traders, the risk of their families going hungry and slipping further into poverty far outweighs any fears they may have of contracting the virus.

    This report was supported by the Africa Women Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

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    Seun Durojaiye is a journalist with International Center for Investigative Reporting (ICIR).

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