The urban nutrition agenda: informal food markets - opportunity or problem?


“The food market is a community - if one of the vendors falls ill we raise money. We also work together to maintain the market, such as the roof, so that it is better to work and sell food here.” The informal food market where Hazera, a grandmother of 5 works, is a hive of activity. Located in Khulna, it provides a vital source of affordable fruit, vegetables and fish to the local urban poor communities, whilst also providing an income for many vendors like Hazera. In recent years, the working conditions were improved with support from the local municipality, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The vendors were involved in the improvement process from the beginning through a participatory approach. Now, they maintain the washing facilities, toilets, raised platforms and the roof through regular financial contributions.

Food markets, fulfill a key role in the economies of many cities in developing countries like Bangladesh. This sector is important for employment, and a potential engine of economic growth as well as gender empowerment. Food markets also can play a role in improving diets and nutrition, mostly because the urban poor depend on them for cheap produce. Despite this, vendors like Hazera are ignored in the urban agenda mainly because they are often perceived as obstacles to infrastructure development, a source of unsafe food and pollution, and a seller acting outside of the law.

Instead, governments need to consider working together with the informal actors to address urban food and nutrition insecurity. While there are several factors of the food system that influence dietary choices, food price is possibly one of the most significant reasons to sway urban poor buyer decisions. Those who are hungry are those who lack sufficient purchasing power to nourish themselves. Food that is safe, of good quality, and nutritious is often too expensive for them.

Traditional and domestic in nature, the informal markets, lack modern infrastructure which can give rise to food safety and hygiene issues. To minimise the risk of food-borne disease, appropriate infrastructure and cold chain management are needed, however these elements are under-developed in most low-income settings. In addition, small businesses also have little access to resources such as clean water, credit, training, and technical advice.

An informal food market in Khulna, Bangladesh

A vendor selling cheap "gone-off" fruit

Understanding informal food markets is also of critical importance for gender issues. Women tend to be responsible for street food and small catering operations; whereas men often sell meat or fish. For women, as caregivers, working in these jobs can impact their infant’s and their own nutritional needs. Their jobs and working conditions are not subject to labour laws, and do not offer social or medical benefits such as childcare, and often can involve long trading hours. The time constraints faced by female urban vendors can compromise of time spent on infant and care practices. However, informal trade can also include trading from home or trading collectively, which gives women the means to engage in economic activity, whilst maintaining some degree of childcare.

In essence, to understand and confront the urban food and nutrition insecurity problem, informal food traders, processors, and retailers should be involved in urban food planning and programming. In the past, formalisation processes of food safety legislation have often been ineffective because the needs and preferences of the stakeholders were not taken into account. Interventions for an improved food environment are necessary, and the sector should focus on employment and food security. Ensuring affordability of products and nutritious supply should be a priority, and should tie in with opportunities to address gender issues, create employment, and stimulate economic growth. Innovations in cold storage may be a viable solution for preventing food spoilage, promoting food safety, and reducing waste. Renovations to the physical infrastructure of the market, or the creation of new market spaces may also be beneficial to suit a wide range of needs, such as: the inclusion of waste collection points, shelter and raised platforms for produce, handwashing stations, bathrooms, or childcare facilities. However, prevent costly failure, the needs of buyers and seller needs must be determined and greater priority should be given to understanding why retailers locate where they do.

We, in the development community must recognise that ignoring Hazera and her peers means that we are failing the urban poor. The solution is not to displace or encourage the informal food sector, but to inclusively develop informal food markets with tested interventions so that cities can thrive. In the upcoming SNV paper, The Urban Agenda - Meeting the food and nutrition security needs of the urban poor, the role of informal markets is further explored.