Urban foodscapes: the Accra experience

Accra offers its own gastronomic charm that displays the art of Ghanaian food systems and culture. The city is littered with food stands, spots and corners, spontaneously woven into the urban architecture. You can be sure to get a quick snack or a fully-fledged meal at any time at an affordable rate. The city’s street food scene provides the basis for understanding Accra’s culinary identity and economies of access to different types of foods.

One of Accra’s must-eat street food options is a meal of roasted plantain and groundnuts, popularly known as ‘Kofi Broke Man’– the poor man’s food. Neatly packed in plastic bags, it is a nutritious and popular on-the-go meal. The availability of plantains all year round, particularly in the southern, central and western parts of Ghana, makes it affordable to produce. Street vendors sell a standard package of three roasted plantains and a small handful of peanuts for about 3 Ghanaian cedis, which is less than $1. Kwame Boakye, a bricklayer, finds that “the food is filling and cheap and can hold the stomach for up to 5 hours.”

While street food vendors keep city dwellers fed and happy, food vending is also a key pillar of the city’s informal economy. Street food is an important source of income for vulnerable families. It is a popular choice as an informal business for underprivileged women who occupy 95% of the street food vending space in urban Ghana, according to a study conducted by the UN agency on Food and Agriculture (FAO).

Veronica Danquah, the owner of a food stand selling jollof rice and chicken, says her job helps her support her husband and two infant children. Entering into the business required minimal outlay, she explains, since all she needs is a makeshift table, utensils and ingredients. Unlike other businesses that require legal formalities such as registration, Veronica says setting up shop was quick and easy.

Expanding international options

The urban food experience for low-income earners in Accra is typically limited to local foods and cheap imports, such as canned tuna and noodles. Those with deeper pockets have the financial flexibility to explore and broaden their culinary experience.

The rise of expats in the city, and emerging culinary curiosity among the middle-class, has created demand for western style contemporary eateries. An example is Bistro 22 found in the upscale neighborhood of Labone, where main meals range from $20 to $50. This may not appear to be pricey, but in a city where local foods are ubiquitous and cheap, only a few are privileged to enjoy this ‘gourmet’ food. A key point to note is that such high-end restaurants rely heavily on imported food products and the costs of these imported goods are passed on to the customers. An informal interview with staff at Bistro 22 confirmed that most of their ingredients are imported.

Maame Hudson, a middle class city resident, says that from time to time she patronizes what she calls ‘plush restaurants’ but sometimes craves the local street food instead. On the other hand, Gijs Van Bouwel, an expat from the Netherlands, says “ the novelty of local food has worn off” and he “prefers to explore up-and- coming restaurants in the city.”

Emerging literature shows a positive correlation between food and how people rank the urban experience. But this linkage is yet to be empirically explored in the African context. A study on U.S. cities conducted by international planning and design firm Shttps://www.urbanafrica.net/wp-admin/post-new.phpasaki, What Makes a City Great?’ found that survey respondents ranked food and restaurants as the most “outstanding aspect” of cities they love to visit. Forty-one percent of respondents said they favour food and restaurants. Furthermore, Lovallo (2013) finds that food and gastronomy is becoming a universal language that has the power to communicate information about a region or location. She further argues that food can be harnessed as an element or indicator of globalization at the city level.

Evidently, food plays a large role in the urban experience. Research into the dynamics between food and the urban experience, albeit more mature in the global north, can play a role in understanding the economic and cultural value of cities in the south.

 

Jane Lumumba is an urban practitioner and PhD candidate in Public Administration and Public Policy based in Accra, Ghana. She is currently a consultant at the Commonwealth Local Government Forum working in the fields of local economic development in West Africa.

Photo: Street vendor in Accra. Jane Lumumba.

 

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