A group of African women preparing and serving food at a local food market.
A group of African women preparing and serving food at a local food market.

Women play a pivotal role in the intricate web of food systems in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Mothers, daughters, community leaders – these are the often undervalued individuals holding the reins on critical food-linked decisions and hygiene practices. From purchasing and preparation to dietary choices for vulnerable groups (infants, disabled and the elderly), women's influence on food safety is undeniable.

However, in LMICs, the burden of foodborne disease (sometimes called "food poisoning") is chronically high, and achieving universally safe and healthy food is a considerable challenge. Numerous pilot programmes to train food handlers, within and outside the home, in hygienic food practices have been tried worldwide, with varying success [5]. Even where pilots have positive impacts locally, the potential to scale up that success into wider regions and make these programmes self-sustaining remains elusive. Equally difficult is making food safety programmes inclusive enough for all groups in society to benefit equitably from them.

We have reviewed several food safety projects in LMICs to address this issue. This analysis aimed at identifying the factors that contribute to success or hinder effectiveness and those with the greatest potential to achieve a 'triple win' of equity, scalability, and sustainability. From this, we have developed a guiding framework to help design future food safety programmes.

From our review, we found that projects consistently reported high food safety knowledge among women [2], [3] and their ability to outperform men in food safety practices [4]. However, despite women's potential to become food safety champions, traditions and cultural norms often dictate societal expectations that can limit their opportunities and constrain their resources. Gendered expectations dictate certain roles as 'male' or 'female,' influencing the distribution of responsibilities in food handling. The arbitrary nature of these cultural determinations is evident in the contrasting genders of butchers in African countries (primarily males) versus Vietnam (mostly females), illustrating the need in some places to challenge and redefine gender norms [4].

Our research also looks to validate the framework we have developed among potential users such as intervention designers. To this end, we conducted focus group discussions among vegetable vendors in Northern Nigeria. We found that women traders were perceived, by male traders, to attract customers because of their generous and helpful nature. Women participants also explained their dedication to the well-being of their household helpers. Evidence suggests financially empowered women tend to reinvest their earnings into family needs, potentially improving household nutrition and health [6], illustrating the broader influence women can exert on health within their communities. From these findings, we believe that promoting gender equity and empowering women throughout the food sector, both as employees and business owners, is likely to have wider benefits on the success of food safety initiatives.

At a deeper level, our research also highlighted that inclusivity in developing enabling factors such as sanitation, economic stability, and infrastructure fosters greater equity, ensuring everyone has access to resources that can improve their food safety practices. The existing facilities, often driven by men's perspectives, fail to adequately address women's needs and create significant limitations for them. Lack of access to sanitation facilities jeopardises women's health and hygiene, impacting the safety of the food they handle [7]. Transportation hurdles such as the inability to operate a motorbike have been reported to disadvantage women in Kenya's dairy industry, limiting their business prospects [3].

Unlocking the full potential of women as food safety heroes demands a multi-faceted approach. Firstly, reshaping traditional beliefs around gender roles is essential for inclusivity in various food-related activities. Secondly, addressing environmental limitations, such as inadequate sanitary facilities, through systematic interventions is crucial to enhancing women's productivity and overall food safety. By recognising and leveraging the unique strengths of women in the food safety landscape, we can pave the way for a future where gender equity and safe food practices coalesce seamlessly, benefitting communities at large.


[1] D. Grace, “Burden of foodborne disease in low-income and middle-income countries and opportunities for scaling food safety interventions,” Food Security, vol. 15, no. 6, pp. 1475–1488, Dec. 2023, doi: 10.1007/s12571-023-01391-3.

[2] S. O. Nee and N. A. Sani, “Assessment of Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices (KAP) Among Food Handlers at Residential Colleges and Canteen Regarding Food Safety,” Sains Malays, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 403–410, 2011.

[3] S. Alonso, E. Muunda, S. Ahlberg, E. Blackmore, and D. Grace, “Beyond food safety: Socio-economic effects of training informal dairy vendors in Kenya,” vol. 18, pp. 86–92, Jul. 2018.

[4] D. Grace, K. Roesel, and T. Lore, “Poverty and gender aspects of food safety and informal markets in sub-Saharan Africa,” vol. 21, Jul. 2014.

[5] H. Pal, D. Grace, and J. Bettridge, “Evaluation of food safety interventions in Low- and Middle- Income Countries (LMICs).”

[6] J. Bruce, “Homes divided,” World Dev, vol. 17, no. 7, pp. 979–991, Jul. 1989, doi: 10.1016/0305-750X(89)90162-9.

[7] E. Chilanga and L. Riley, “Accessibility of Sanitary Facilities Among Food Sellers in African Secondary Cities: Implications for Food Safety and Urban Planning Policies,” pp. 331–346, Jul. 2022.


Himadri Pal is a PhD student at NRI, and her research focuses on improving food safety standards within informal markets of low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Himadri's diverse background, spanning both food product development and quality assurance drives her towards consistent innovation in her research.

Dr Judy Bettridge is a Senior Lecturer in Biostatistics for Food and Agriculture at NRI. Her research is focussed on animal health and the ecology of infections in livestock production systems. Her work is largely interdisciplinary and aims to integrating multiple data types and measurements to describe the drivers and dynamics of complex agroecology.


The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) or the University of Greenwich.

This opinion piece is part of the 2024 Gender and Social Difference Opinion Series developed in collaboration with NRI's Gender and Social Difference Research Group. We encourage you to explore the other contributions to this series.