The outbreak of listeriosis, said to have killed more than 180 people nationwide, has been traced to two main culprits in the food processing industry: Enterprise Foods and Rainbow Chicken.

The listeria bacterium’s presence in processed meats prompted the health department to issue a nationwide warning on Sunday, March 4 to avoid processed meats emanating from these suppliers.

Because these meats are low-cost, they have badly affected the lowest-income households and informal vendors operating in townships. Kota vendors have borne the brunt of the outbreak. The kota is a fast food made of a hollowed-out quarter loaf of bread stuffed with fried chips, various assortments of relishes and sauces and combinations of processed meats including Russians, polony, viennas and frankfurters.

Patrick Letsoalo, who owns and runs Skippy Fast Food, a small takeaway in Mandela Village in Pretoria, has felt the devastating effects of the outbreak in his pocket. Prior to the outbreak his midweek customers would spend on average R50 each at his takeaway outlet, with a marked increase in spend during weekends. Speaking to the Financial Mail four days after the announcement, Letsoalo says his kota business has dropped almost 100%. "At the moment we sell chips and nothing else."

Buhle Ngwenya and her mother Winnie run Winnie’s Tuckshop in Tembisa, near Joburg. Their sales have dropped by 30%. Ngwenya says: "Most of the people didn’t know half of our products are not Enterprise so they assumed we were using Enterprise. I assured them on Facebook that everything that had to do with that (Enterprise) product had been taken care of and they can continue to indulge."

Small business development minister Lindiwe Zulu says: "Obviously, the impact will not necessarily be known immediately, but just from sheer logic it’s your informal businesses, men and women selling ikota, who are going to be affected." Zulu requested and was granted permission for her department to form part of an interministerial committee responding to the outbreak because of the effect it will have on small and micro-enterprises nationwide.

George Mnguni, kota evangelist and YouTube personality known for his series Kota Past Nine, says: "In my hood [Vosloorus] it’s cheap, R10 or R15. My friends and I used to eat ikota every day for lunch.

"I haven’t eaten ikota since the news of the outbreak. But I don’t think this thing is going to last in the hood ... we’re going to be up and running again by the end of March."

Sidwell Tshingilane, founder and promoter of the Sasko Soweto Kota Festival, which had its inaugural event at the Soweto Theatre in September 2017, is deeply concerned about the health department’s handling of the outbreak regarding kota vendors.

"We are shocked by the outbreak and worried about how the department is managing this. The department must employ more inspectors to meet this challenge."

Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi says the duty of environmental health inspection has been given to municipalities, some of which struggle with tight budgets and strained resources. This has resulted in a national shortage of 3,300 inspectors.

At the other end of the spectrum to small fast-food sellers, restaurant group Famous Brands produces much of its own processed meats for its brand portfolio that includes Steers, Wimpy, Debonairs Pizza and 24 other restaurant franchises. Famous Brands CEO Darren Hele says that those ready-to-eat cold meats which Famous Brands does not produce in-house have been removed from all the menus of their restaurant franchises.

Spur Corp, which owns the Spur, Panarottis, John Dory’s, RocoMamas, Hussar Grill and Casa Bella chains has also distanced itself from Enterprise Foods and Rainbow Chicken, saying that none of its restaurants is supplied by them.

Zulu views the outbreak as an illustration of the effects that globalisation and large corporations have on small enterprises in SA.

"The issue here is that it’s the big companies, the monopolising companies, that we sometimes don’t exercise a lot of oversight over. So when it comes to health we must watch out because unfortunately for us the world is getting smaller and smaller, so we will be affected by lots of things that start here at home or come from somewhere else."

The kota takeaway sector operating in townships is resilient. "Kota vendors are innovative and some are already doing kotas with only mince and mash or chips and atchar — no polony, Russians or viennas," says Tshingilane. But until the trust of their customers is won back, the sector will continue to suffer the effects of this debilitating blow.