Tuesday, February 27, 2018

To increase urban food security, students and market vendors focus on infrastructure improvements

I wrote this for a USAID newsletter, but it wasn't selected for publication. In it, I address what I perceive as a pervasive fallacy running through lots of development programming: the idea that development must be 'transformational' or that solutions must scale. Often improvements in peoples' lives are incremental, and to outsiders, they often appear small. But improving profit margins even just a little bit is significant in places where people are living on the edge, making household spending decisions on a daily, or even hourly, basis.  The idea that all solutions should 'scale' tends to cause development programmers to avoid drilling down into local context and conditions.  These are some of the things students in the Frugal Innovation Practicum learn.

To increase urban food security, students and market vendors focus on infrastructure improvements 

Urban food markets in the developing world are commonly plagued by trash, poor sanitation, and dilapidated infrastructure. Even so, they are vital nodes in food systems, serving as the link between urban consumers and rural producers. Because these markets enable easy access to food by urban residents and offer many food-based livelihood opportunities, they are critical to city food security and sustainable regional development. 

As nodes in food systems located in cities, they also offer a perfect place for shining a light on the conditions that inhibit or enable urban food security, an issue that will undoubtedly move to the front of food security agendas as the world continues on its urbanization trajectory. Looking at and understanding how urban factors affect access to food or the ability of a food retailer to do her job, will increasingly become part of what development practitioners and policy makers need to know.

Enter the Frugal Innovation Practicum, an innovative service-learning opportunity, in which students from Michigan State University (MSU) and Malawi’s Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) grapple with problems in markets and collaborate with the community to propose strategies for addressing them, such as installing toilets, lights, and water taps.

How are these market improvements fundamental to food security?

"If the markets have so many problems, then the quality of the food might not be that good. So helping to solve the problems that the markets face will help not only the traders, but also the consumers,” said Caroline Phiri, former practicum participant from LUANAR. “The markets serve a lot of people, not only from rural areas but also from urban areas. I believe the markets are really important because they provide so much that people need. I feel it’s really important to help solve the problems that the people face in the markets. Every market has a specific problem that they're facing."

For the last two years, MSU and LUANAR have crowdfunded a total of $6,683, which was donated to six market committees for the improvement projects that students and retailers identified as being most critical. This money, in conjunction with monetary and in-kind contributions by city officials and market communities, has been used to upgrade toilets and install water taps, lighting, and a security gate.

"Before the taps, we had to fetch water far, and [it would] come late, so no time to prepare meals. It is easier now and we can cook fast,” said Hannah Ackimu, restaurant vendor at Lilongwe's Central Market. “Before [the] fresh fish [section] had water, it was not clean and not in good condition. No one wanted it.”

An easily accessible water tap has also increased Ackimu’s profits from selling morning tea. “Business is good now because I come early, and cook tea and they buy it [while it’s hot]. When I fetch[ed] water [from afar], I made tea at once and it got cold.” Now Ackimu’s customers can count on a hot cup of tea each morning.

Are such quick fixes transformational? Probably not. But the process of creating relationships and a platform for discussion, collaboration, and transparency underlies how the practicum is implemented. The small infrastructure projects improve the material conditions at the markets, but their impact runs deeper. Each project serves as the impetus for practicing a collaborative and communicative process – the basis of action and improvement. Moreover, the changes, however small, are evidence of a ‘win’ for all people involved. And, it’s that win that provides a foundation for transformational change.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Poor Conditions in Markets Create Barriers to Food Security

The 2017 Frugal Innovation Practicum uncovered many costs to urban food retailers that undermine their ability to earn enough money to support their families. Many of the costs in markets create barriers to entry and put a cap on economic growth. This limits profitability within the market, which also increases barriers to strengthening local food security.

FIP students sought to precisely identify these costs and explored solutions by conducting a collaborative inquiry with vendors and other local food system actors. Lizzy LaFave, Communications Aide and Reporter for FIP 2017. Dr. Stephanie White, City-Regional Food Systems Lead and MSU FIP Program Director Hilda Tabulo, Market Vendor

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Innovations in Urban Food Sourcing: A model to serve the un-served

I don't know that Twiga Foods can be classified as social entrepreneurship, but it is definitely guided by the needs of an un-served market.  Take a look at this story (or see below), which I came across on Twitter.  The CEO of Twiga Foods explained that this retailer was acquiring her produce from a Twiga depot. As someone who does research in urban food markets, I can tell you that urban food retailers typically spend a huge amount of time and money sourcing food for their businesses, traveling to other markets, often located in distant cities and, when produce is scarce, directly to farms and/or increasingly further from the cities where they are based. The model here would seem to relieve that burden enormously.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Research Brief: Regional Supply Chains and the Food Economy of Malawi

We've just published our first research brief from data collected in April in Lilongwe markets. This is but a drop in the bucket of all the wonderful data we have and I'm very excited to continue working with LUANAR to build on this work.

I'm particularly excited about this one because it represents the first time I've used my newly acquired GIS skills to create maps from original data, and that was fun.

*edit 10-10-2017: I inserted a new version of the brief, which contains one more author.

Monday, September 18, 2017

NYTimes Article: How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food

The New York Times published an important article over the weekend on how Nestle is changing the food system in Brazil and the health effects those changes are having on people.  I appreciated the article's framing, which highlights how Nestle has exercised power to achieve its goals.  The focus on power is in contrast to how this issue is often discussed in relation to urbanization and the so-called 'nutrition transition.'  Rarely is the activist role by the food industry mentioned, and the nutrition transition is generally seen as a natural outcome of a developing food system/increasing incomes. As this article points out, however, Nestle used its considerable resources to mount a multi-pronged, all-out effort to crush or discredit any kind of obstacle that would limit its reach to the hearts, minds, and stomachs of the population.

The one complaint I have about the article is that the existing Brazilian food system is invisible. The local, small-scale food system, which is likely where most poor people still get the majority of their food, is not alluded to even once. That system is generally viewed by decision-makers and development economists as an 'under-developed' food system and therefore destined to disappear. People working in it typically receive no support and lots of harassment.  It's not a minor critique because so often the colonialist mindset sees anything 'pre-Western' as either a void, or as chaotic and inefficient. I've never been to Brazil, but I'll bet there's a thriving local food exchange system that employs many, many people, and though those incomes may be small, the work is valuable.

The article is here, and there is a video, too, which I've not yet watched (it may be that local food system makes an appearance there).

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Why support the small-scale urban food sector?

On the way to work today, I heard that what's in the news is the single greatest predictor of where people decide to donate their money. So, I thought I'd give you a few newsy facts about why supporting urban food systems is important:
  • The share of Africans living in urban areas is projected to grow from 36 percent in 2010 to 50 percent by 2030. Thus far, not much planning has occurred to deal with an impending worsening of urban food security.
  • Inequality in Africa is rising http://africasacountry.com/2017/…/african-inequality-rising/ People need jobs. The urban food sector is already thriving and the barriers to working in it are low. Supporting it to do better is 'low hanging fruit' in relation to improving city well-being.
  • the urban food sector is a major employer of women and the working poor, two groups of people who often don't have access to additional resources, but who could definitely use them!
  • those who work in the urban food sector are often disenfranchised and harassed by city officials. One major aspect of our program is that we work w/the municipality to bridge this divide: http://mgafrica.com/…/2017-05-01-why-brutalising-food-vendo… (Did you know the Arab Spring was set off by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor that had been brutalized time and time again? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_of_Mohamed_Bouazizi)

Supporting an inclusive and sustainable food system that improves the income margins of the people who work there and maintains access to nutritious food at affordable prices is the goal of the practicum. Help us out by supporting our work!

 FIP Student, Lindsay, interviews a retailer in Lilongwe's Tsoka Market. Credit: Alyssa Cleland
FIP Student, Lindsay, interviews a retailer in Lilongwe's Tsoka Market. Credit: Alyssa Cleland

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Crowdfunding improvements for safe, nutritious, and widely accessible food environments.

The money you donate goes DIRECTLY to retailers in markets who use it to make improvements that benefit both the people who work in markets and the people who shop there. Last year, the money donated was used to upgrade toilets and install water taps, for example. What's more is that the whole process of student engagement has enabled a much broader conversation between the municipality and retailers about how to support safe and accessible food! Please consider a small donation for this work!

Support Innovation in Malawi's Urban Food Markets

To learn more about small-scale retailers and their work, watch "Ruth's Legumes: Small-scale Urban Food Trade in Lilongwe."