Reflecting on Béné’s review of important concepts for local food systems resilience in context of systemic shocks

By | May 13, 2021

Béné’s (May, 2020) review last year of the most important concepts for thinking about resilience of local food systems, in context of the pandemic and other shocks provides frameworks for situating empirical data on the resilience strategies employed by informal economic actors in the last mile of Nairobi’s urban food system specializing in fresh produce sales in informal settlements. I want to use the blog to pull it apart and put it together again so that I know how and where to contextualize my own findings.

The objective of this review is to explore and discuss the concept of “local food system resilience” in the light of the disruptions brought to those systems by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are interested here in the food systems operated in LMICs (now representing more than 6.5 billion people), and our analysis focuses on the local level, where the interactions between the different actors of the systems (producers, retailers, consumers) take place. (Béné, 2020)

The first thing that strikes me, even before I get into the definitions of food security and food system resilience is the gap I can see in his first table (Table 1, Béné, 2020) outlining the expected impacts on various actors in the urban food system, even though in the body of his text he mentions the bridging role played by “middlemen” lumping together aggregators, brokers, and wholesalers in this category and jumping forward to retailers and vendors in the table.

There’s an entire paper that can be written on the critical role played by urban informal wholesalers, distinguishing them from aggregators who tend to operate in upcountry markets, and brokers who might also often arrange transportation, in the sourcing and supply of fresh produce in the Kenyan context. Lumping them together with other “middlemen” or considering them as merely retailers in Nairobi’s wholesale markets overlooks their importance in ensuring the sustained flow of fresh produce within the informal urban food system all through the challenges of the pandemic’s systemic shock. I will stop my rant here to pick it up in its own journal article.

The second point is that the way the system is currently considered, as evidenced by the table, overlooks the networking function of the informal urban food system and the personal relationships that go into coordinating supplies from producers, via transporters, into wholesale markets, and thereby distributed through sales to market vendors. Béné’s (May, 2020) own conceptual framework of resilience highlights the importance of considering “ripple effects” – which are virtually impossible to consider in full without highlighting the non-linear connectivity seen at the last mile – the complex interdependence visualized as a value web (Doorneweert et al, 2014) through field discovery for the Dutch sustainable agricultural value chain development mapping project conducted in collaboration with WUR’s economic research unit.

Taking the lens of dense networks built on relationships as the organizing principle for informal food systems, a major part of the informal trade commercial system (see. Hart, Meagher, Walther) offers a new way to consider resilience based on cooperation and collaboration and groups rather than the conventional picture painted of hapless individuals. Yes, vendors tend to be individuals operating on their own selling half a crate of tomatoes, but their relationships with their regular suppliers and customers also play a part. I suspect this too is a paper on its own right.

Now, when we consider Béné’s (May, 2020) generic causal pathway of resilience adapted for assessing the impact of Covid-19 pandemic, as shown above, we note that it starts from the resilience capacity level of the individual household or informal enterprise and traces the path through to wellbeing at the individual or household level. The role played by the individual’s community – professional, social, family networks – is overlooked.

By Jeroen Meijer, for Doorneweert, R. B., Bhan, N., Kumunya, W., & Esko, S. (2014). The Farmer’s Perspective: Bridging the Last Mile to Market (No. 14-006). LEI Wageningen UR.

In LMICs, and in informal economic systems, cooperative forms of economic activity are the norm rather than the exception. Béné’s generic pathway (May, 2020) lists Social capital seperately from Financial capital as a resilience capacity, whereas the prevalence of informal and formal financial groups is extensively documented in both rural and urban LMIC contexts. The social is the financial and vice versa, and community as insurance is also well documented. My current data does not wholly answer Béné’s unspoken question:

Although there does not seem to be any ‘unique’ or ‘perfect’ combination, the current evidence suggests that for farmers, financial/assets and to a lower extent social capitals are key in this resilience process (e.g.Fafchamps and Lund2003; Carter and Barrett 2006; Aldrich 2010; Woodson et al. 2016). It would be important to explore if this general pattern is also observed for the other actors of the food systems or if different types of capacities are more specifically critical for other groups of actors. (Béné, 2020)

On the other hand, early evidence of the role of the financial group can be gleaned from the wholesaler’s perspective to offer directions for future research and to confirm whether my hypothesis that the systems and structures of the informal commercial system, particularly informal trade systems, are such that they form a currently overlooked aspect of resilience capacity, and thus may inform resilience strategies by actors in the informal food system far more than currently considered.

That is, one would reframe the quoted paragraph above to ask what is the role of social financial cooperation and informal financial groups in the resilience process for local food systems, using the context of my own datasets from east Africa. This would be impossible to answer without understanding rural household financial management at the bottom of the pyramid, the last mile of agricultural value chains, and informal trade’s commercial systems (Bhan, 2009; 2013; 2016; 2018).

From the empirical standpoint, the datasets gathered during the remote resilience project provide ample insights on resilience strategies, as distinguished from resilience capacities by Béné (May, 2020), of two sets of informal economic actors in Nairobi’s urban food system supplying fresh produce to informal settlements – the retailers (primarily B2B) in the wholesale market who source and supply four categories of perishables – tomatoes, kales, bananas, and onions; as well as the mama mbogas – the vegetable vendors (primarily B2C) in the slums.

Early evidence already shows that there are many overlaps in roles and that the farm to fork value chain, as evidenced in the last mile of the urban food system, is as complex and nonlinear as discovered in the rural back in 2013 (Doorneweert et al, 2014). I cannot consider the resilience strategies of the informal food system without looking into the informal commercial practices of the actors, and this orientation may also inform a more nuanced approach to looking at their resilience capacities.

On the other hand, Béné offers a concise summary of relevant risk management strategies for food systems from his informed review of the literature, and that provides a solid foundation for my first paper based on the dataset analysis to situate the participants resilience strategies, prior to intervention, within his tabulation of discussed strategies.

Béné, C. (2020). Resilience of local food systems and links to food security–A review of some important concepts in the context of COVID-19 and other shocks. Food Security, 1-18.

Doorneweert, R. B., Bhan, N., Kumunya, W., & Esko, S. (2014). The Farmer’s Perspective: Bridging the Last Mile to Market (No. 14-006). LEI Wageningen UR.

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