Importance and value of Africa’s informal food markets

Kenyatta Market, Nairobi, Kenya (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

Kenyatta Market, Nairobi, Kenya (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

There’s a new book released by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and partners — Food Safety and Informal Markets: Animal Products in Sub-Saharan Africa—that probes the complicated world of traditional or ‘informal’ markets in livestock products. Here are some unexpectedly juicy findings:

Research by ILRI and partners shows that in most developing countries, more than 80 per cent of livestock product purchases occur through informal markets — and in places where there is no ‘formal’ alternative, like a western-style supermarket, close at hand. And the studies find that this situation is unlikely to change for decades to come. Also, even where supermarkets are an option, studies in East and Southern Africa have found that, due to a poorly patrolled chain of custody between producer and seller, milk and meat sold in supermarkets may pose a greater health threat than what is sold in traditional markets.

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Informal & Social Measures in the Kadogo Economy (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

Moreover, small producers have many attractions for poor consumers. They are typically within walking distance for people who lack cars and they offer the opportunity to purchase fresh food in small amounts — part of what is known in East Africa as the ‘kadogo’ economy. (Kadogo is street slang for ‘small.’) In addition, many sellers in traditional markets will extend credit and typically offer the traditional foods their customers prefer.

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Uchumi Supermarket, Ngong Road, Nairobi, Kenya (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

Many policymakers mistakenly believe that food-borne illness in developing regions will rapidly decline as the modernization or ‘supermarketization’ of food sales steadily supplants informal markets. But the ILRI studies show that Africa’s supermarket food is not necessarily safer than food in informal markets and also that informal markets are unlikely to disappear — and could even become stronger — in the coming decades.

Indeed, the research shows that consumers prefer informal to formal markets, and not just for their lower prices, but also because traditional markets tend to sell fresher food. They also sell local products and breeds, which many consumers continue to prefer — and those preferences seem to intensify as incomes rise. For example, in Africa and Southeast Asia, consumers often prefer local chicken breeds over cheaper imported breeds.

Freshly shredded cabbage (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

Freshly shredded cabbage (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

Informal markets are growing, not shrinking, across the developing world and in many ways mirror the “locavore” trend occurring in wealthy countries’, said Grace.If we are going to improve food safety in these markets, we need policies that are guided by an understanding of producer and consumer behaviour, local diets and customs, and interventions that can reduce illness without imperilling food security or increasing poverty.’

 A deeper understanding of the entire value web (chain doesn’t apply as the rural ecosystem is as unstructured and informal as the markets) of  these informal markets for meat, milk, vegetables and other foodstuffs will offer greater value than towards informing policy alone.

Informal retail is expected to grow, and “supermarketization” will neither come fast enough to change this any time soon, nor be able to replace the complex role the bazaar plays in both rural and urban contexts. This is worth remembering for consumer facing brands, especially in the FMCG sector, as well.

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