One of West Africa’s favorite streetfoods could be causing cancer for its makers and consumers

Tasty…and potentially deadly.
Tasty…and potentially deadly.
Image: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
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Long before streetfood became trendy, women in markets across West Africa were smoking hundreds of fish, shellfish, and prawns to sell each day. A closer look at this favorite snack, however, shows that it could be dangerous for both consumers and cooks.

The traditional method leaves more than smoke in the eyes for the women preparers. Old smokers burn wood mixed with coal and gas and produce large amounts of carbon dioxide, adding to greenhouse gases. “Also, traditional smoking releases contaminants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogenic and hazardous to the human respiratory system,” said Yvette Diei-Ouadi, a fisheries expert with the UN.

Health practitioners in Senegal and Nigeria have raised concerns over the quality of the fish and the health and safety around preparation methods. In recent years, Africa’s healthcare systems have shifted focus toward non-communicable diseases, increasing scrutiny on lifestyles and food choices.

A woman prepares smoked fish for sale at a marketplace in Libreville, Gabon,
A woman prepares smoked fish for sale at a marketplace in Libreville, Gabon,
Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings

A not-so-no new technology is trying to make smoking fish healthier and more profitable. Since its official introduction in 2015, the FTT-Thiaroye has evolved from simple technology to a processing technique that is applicable to existing kilns, making it easier to roll out on a broad scale.

Created with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and local partners such as the National Training Centre for Fish and Aquaculture Technicians in Senegal, the FTT method reduces smoke and the amount of wood needed by funneling smoke from the kilns through a metal pipe. The furnace sits at the base of the smoker and can be pushed or rolled underneath the smoking compartment. The oven also can be used to stored smoked fish.

The new method promises to boost profits by cutting the amount of fuel needed. The cost of setting up the machine is still too high for many poorer communities, according to a report by Al Jazeera. But if costs go down, it could be applied to the 10-12% of the world’s population who make their living from aquaculture, according to the FAO.  And it could be a healthier way to prepare a favorite snack.