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.

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