Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"Informal" Food Systems: unpacking assumptions about meaning and value

I have a particular interest in researching and engaging with the 'small' urban food sector. This is a sector you're familiar with if you've spent time in places where the industrial food system hasn't transformed the food environment. In such places, smallholder farmers grow the food, and then that food is moved off the farm and into cities through the individual efforts of many thousands of small-scale transporters and traders. This sector is a main source of food for most people in these places, and a huge source of employment for many, especially women.

The small-food sector is extremely important to both food security and livelihood, but, with the exception of smallholder farmers, it receives very little attention from academia, governments, or other research institutions and development agencies. Essentially, what goes on in that sector is a 'black box' from an outsider's point-of-view, which means that in addition to knowing very little about the activities and relationships that comprise it, researchers and decision-makers also have very little appreciation for how it is important to the people that depend on it.*  

The words that people use to frame any reality or object of study carry some assumptions that influence how value or meaning is attached to that particular reality. The word that is often used to describe systems in the Global South is 'informal.'  And while some organizations, such as ILO and WIEGO use the term to draw attention to how (mainly) poor people experience the economy, housing, and food provisioning and exchange in cities, mainstream economists and development professionals use the term to signify a system in chaos, or 'without form.'

If you attached characteristics to an informal/formal dichotomy, it would probably look something like this:

In a 'developmentalist' framing, the value attached to informal is 'undeveloped' (and therefore bad**), while formal would be construed as modern and developed.

Narratives are historical and serve particular interests, so a brief history of the word can help to see how it's been leveraged in favor of particular agendas. Initially, it was used by Keith Hart (1973) to characterize the difference between wage‐earning (formal) and self‐employment (informal).  His intent in making the distinction was to caution against the "unthinking transfer of western categories to the economic and social structures of African cities." However, the significance of the word evolved as it was colonized and folded into the prevailing developmentalist macroeconomic policy framework, which enabled informality to emerge as an ‘object of state regulation’(Roy, 2005). To his obvious chagrin, Hart subsequently noted that the "'informal economy' became a way of turning what is defiantly external to bureaucracy into something internal to it, incorporating the autonomous life of the people into the abstracted universe of their rulers" (Hart 2006) The concept, both as presented by Hart, and in its revised 'developmentalist' form received a lot of criticism, but it persisted because, as so succinctly stated by Ray Bromley in his introduction to a 1978 edition of World Development, “it provided the rationale for the sorts of policies which the mainstream development community wished to recommend to…..Third World countries.”  In other words, it “embodied policy implications which were convenient for international organizations and politically middle of the road governments” and “it appeared to help the poor without any major threat to the rich.”

In the food sector, 'informal' connotes antiquated, dilapidated, and insufficient for moving food around in growing cities. There is an emerging consensus that it will be necessary to 'structurally transform' these systems so that food demand can be met.*** The assertion that structural transformation is needed, however, comes with no empirical evidence about why current small-scale food provisioning systems would be unable to meet this future demand. Let me be clear, I'm not saying they can or cannot. As someone who has been researching these food systems for several years, I know that actors in small-scale food systems struggle and could use some support to address issues that negatively impact their work and ability to provision cities. But to implement policies without knowing how those policies will affect a primary source of food and livelihood is irresponsible and very likely to harm many people. Further, to malign and dismiss these practices without understanding them is to deprive ourselves of insight that can be helpful in reinventing the definition of 'modern' food systems, a clear need in light of the contemporary and unprecedented challenges facing us. 'Modern' food systems, given their tendency to produce obesity, cause environmental disasters, use practices that are unethical to both humans and animals, and be overly energy intensive, are looking increasingly backwards and in need of an overhaul to be more capable of dealing with 'modern' challenges.

So, what terms should be used if not 'informal?'  What terms might better call attention to the interests that are served by particular investments into food systems?  For my own work, it will depend on whom I'm talking to, but I'll not be able to abandon the term completely because of its wide purchase among advocates and people actually working in that sector (e.g. MUFIS).  I have colleagues that prefer the term 'traditional,' but, while that doesn't give the impression of chaos, it does convey something 'old fashioned.' I've been using 'small-scale,' but that is devoid of cultural and political significance, which are important aspects of any food system. Charles Dhewa uses the term People's Market, which calls attention to who controls, uses, and benefits from this kind of food exchange, but it isn't a term in wide use. My academic self likes 'emergent,' 'popular,' and/or 'complex adaptive systems.' For the time being, it's at least important to make the inherent assumptions explicit and to keep shining a light into the black box.

* (edit, 13January: I should note the exception to this broad statement.  The Consuming Poverty project ( is currently one of the few research and engagement projects working in this area. In addition, AFSUN ( has quite a number of empirical works on urban food security in African cities.)

**The World Bank says "The term informality means different things to different people, but almost always bad things: unprotected workers, excessive regulation, low productivity, unfair competition, evasion of the rule of law, underpayment or nonpayment of taxes, and work “underground” or in the shadows."

***From the publication "Growing Food for Growing Cities", p. 26: "structural transformation of the food system includes both structural changes and conduct changes within the segments of the food system. Structural changes include spatial lengthening, consolidation, disintermediation, and vertical integration. Conduct changes include technological advances, use of purchasing standards and contracts, the rise of procurement networks, and increased horizontal coordination such as cooperatives."

Works Cited
Bromley, R. (1978). Introduction-The urban informal sector: why is it worth discussing?. World development6(9), 1033-1039.
Hart, Keith. (1973). Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 11(1), 61‐89.
Hart, K. (2006). Bureaucratic form and the informal economy. Linking the formal and informal economy: Concepts and policies, 21-35.
Roy, A. (2005). Urban informality: toward an epistemology of planning. Journal of the American Planning Association71(2), 147-158.


  1. An illuminating article. My own observation is that the small scale food grower is the most vulnerable in this chain.

    1. Hi Macharia, thank you for reading. Do you care to expand on why you think that growers are more vulnerable than others in the system?

  2. Hello Stephanie,
    Mine is really by empirical evidence.I come from Kenya and most of the food sold in urban markets is grown by small scale farmers.
    I have seen the transporters do prosper (buy more lorries build houses, etc), the brokers-here farmers don't sell directly to the markets-also do well.
    The small scale farmer seems to be struggling for ever and their economic status hardly changes.
    A number of initiatives to give farmers market information through mobile phones have been implemented but i don't think they have worked.The brokers still dictate the prices.
    I would also be interested to know what you think about small scale agro-processing for value addition.

    1. I agree w/you. I think that there are people in these emergent systems that do better than others. In cities, there are many people working in this system who are also vulnerable and have very small profit margins. I just don't think there's been much attention (compared to the attention that's been paid to farmers), so there's not much evidence to make an empirical case, or to even say who's better off in the system.

      But, I guess for me, the main concern is that the small-scale *system* is poorly described/understood, and it's been looked at as basically an *undeveloped* mode of food exchange. So, there's little valuation of it as it is, and lots of focus on changing it, which I think is dangerous and really makes everyone involved in that system vulnerable to policies and decisions that don't take those experiences into consideration.

      First, there needs to be an acknowledgement that the system functions as it does and has developed as it has because it follows a certain logic (as emergent systems often do).

      And, yes, I think that small scale agro-processing holds a lot of potential, not least because it puts power and decision-making into the hands of the farmers (or whoever is controlling it). I do think there needs to be a good understanding of what people need and what the potential constraints and opportunities there are around any potential technology, but there are methods for that, including those found with human-centered design. I also think the innovation systems framework (proposed by Hekkert et al) is really useful for understanding the system. Do you know it? Tigabu has used it in Rwanda and Kenya to evaluate biodigestion. If you would like, I can send you some of those papers.

      Thanks again for the conversation. It's very gratifying to know that you're reading!

  3. Hello Stephanie,
    Thanks for taking time to do a well thought out reply. I do appreciate the insights you have in this area.

    I agree with your thoughts regarding the informal or small scale food distribution systems. They do work and would probably would be much more effective- both in terms of market efficiency and wealth generation- if interventions in this area are guided by a proper understanding of actual operations.
    And yes, farmers may have got a lot of attention, but it seems this hasn't really translated to actual sustainable gains. But I must hasten to add that is still empirical. Maybe a study would prove otherwise!
    Its also true, others, especially those who retail in poorer neighbourhoods can be quite vulnerable to market dynamics.
    Unfortunately, as you pointed out, policy changes in this area are done top down, with very little understanding of the real dynamics at play. I was certainly impressed by the simple interventions your team has done in markets in Malawi. I believe the involvement of the actual beneficiaries and other stakeholders improves outcomes.

    I actually don't know about human-centred designs by Hekkert & others and would really appreciate further information.

    1. I should clarify. I don't mean to say that the work w/ respect to farmers isn't empirical, but I think think the focus on them in the absence of other people in that system gives an incomplete understanding of how the system works. It doesn't make sense to me to study them without studying all the relationships that comprise the system.

      I can send you documents if you want to email me at

      Otherwise, take a look here for human-centered design: That can get you started on understanding some techniques for engagement.

      This is the Tigabu article.

      This is the Hekkert article
      I like this because it helps one to pay attention to the kinds of conditions that can enable people to push along technical change. I've also addressed those issues in these blog posts, so maybe some of them will be helpful.