Urban food system policy myths in a time of crises

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the urgency of addressing disparities between present day realities and persistent policy myths about informal urban markets. In the Global South, markets in lower middle income countries, are vital to the social cohesion, prosperity as well as nutrition and food security status of the most vulnerable urban communities.

There is a well-known story about a group of blind men and an elephant. None of the blind men has seen an elephant before. Each of them touches a different part of the animal and comes to a different conclusion about what the whole elephant looks like.

The same is likely true of food systems. Few people have a comprehensive perspective on their local food system, rather their views are informed by the bits they have seen, and perhaps by stories they have heard. When policy decisions are taken, they often reflect views of an imagined food system which may not correspond to reality.

In a striking recent paper, Liverpool-Tassie et al. stress the need to reassess outdated perceptions of food supply chains in Africa, which are key to food access and livelihoods for billions of people. One myth is that “urban areas are a minor share of the food economy”. This may have been true decades ago but no longer. If anything, COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the vital role of urban informal food markets in low and middle income countries (LMIC) in Africa and South Asia.

Under the umbrella of its Keeping Food Markets Working (KFMW) programme, GAIN works with six city governments in Kenya, Mozambique and Pakistan on their urban food systems and food market actions and policy responses to COVID-19. Such markets provide relatively cheap, accessible food, fostering social cohesion and providing income and employment.

Three urban food and nutrition policy myths, highlighted by recent rapid assessments done as part of GAIN’s work include:

  1. Food system and nutrition policy are the primary responsibility of national and/or provincial governments;
  2. There is ample food supply in urban environments; and
  3. ‘One-size fits all’ economic models apply to formal and informal urban food markets.
Myth 1: Food systems and nutrition policy are the primary responsibility of national and/or provincial governments

City-level participation in the creation, management and implementation of local food and nutrition policies is key to critical to managing local food systems. This is even more true now with new and exacerbated challenged related to COVID-19. In cities where the city’s role is not recognised, or there is an absence of local policy, the capacity of cities to respond is hampered.

In Machakos, Kenya, for example, informal market vendors have been unable to access quality and affordable food supplies due to travel restrictions. Meanwhile urban consumers are ‘too poor’ to purchase essential foods (even for their children) and ‘too scared’ of catching COVID-19 on the increasingly more expensive public transport. Many vendors are in debt, have lost their businesses and/or are struggling to store and replenish their food stocks for sale. Despite the lack of multi-level government coordination, Kenya’s urban counties have responded by establishing multi-sectoral bodies and mechanisms spanning the health and food sectors and informal market committees are implementing policies and strategies including water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities management.

On the other hand, planning and coordination between different levels of government is essential and can be enhanced when city governments play a greater role. For example, in Mozambique, the National Technical and Scientific Committee on COVID-19 is meeting with the 53 mayors of the country and in Pakistan federal and provincial governments are engaged to ensure continued food availability in the markets and to penalize those who attempted to hoard or unduly increase food prices.


Myth 2: There is ample food supply in urban environments

The pandemic has exposed a myth that cities enjoy ample food supplies and the assumption that the urban food environment has sufficient food supply for everyone’s consumption. However, even where food is available it may not be affordable or nutritious. In Mozambique, due to flexible valuation of the currency and reliance on food imports from South Africa, the affordability of food has risen suddenly and sharply – beyond the reach of many urban low-income residents. In Kenya, vendors in Machakos and Kiambu, report that when they travel across county boundaries to source produce, there is limited availability, quality is poorer and prices higher than usual. Back in their urban informal markets, they find their supply stock quickly perishes and they lower their prices and sell at a loss. Even at reduced prices, they only sell about 20% of their stock, they and their families eat about 5%, and the rest is wasted.



Myth 3: ‘One-size fits all’ solutions apply to both formal and informal urban food markets

Urban informal markets not only provide relatively cheap food, close to where urban communities work and/or live, but also income and employment – essential for those on low incomes. Applying the same approach to formal and informal urban retail fails to appreciate the livelihood value of informal urban markets which are important venues for building social capital and sharing information, including communication about health and safety practices.

In Pakistan and Kenya, initiatives to reduce taxes and bank fees cater more for the formal food retail markets than informal markets. In Machakos and Kiambu, hygienic cashless mobile phone transactions for purchases – supported by a government mandated waiver of transaction fees – have had unexpected negative impacts on vendors who are unable to keep track of sales until the end of the day because they are accustomed to comparing cash in hand to their remaining stock. There are also reports of consumers reversing such transactions after completing purchases and vendors only realising this at the end of a day when transactions are reconciled. Therefore, well-intentioned policies and financial innovations might not be achieving their objective in practice.


GAIN’s and Liverpool-Tassie et al. findings are based on experiences in the global South, stressing an urgency to learn from the policy outcomes from the first wave of COVID-19 and how they can be applied to the second wave being faced now by many cities. There is a need to develop integrated emergency and long-term resilience policies, strategies and plans that confront the myths and realities of local food systems and nutrition. These can be developed through food and nutrition policy dialogues with city governments, stakeholders from across food systems and related sectors and across levels of government. Such participatory dialogues need to be supported by evidence (which can be rapidly acquired) and then actioned with monitoring and learning to ensure they are fulfilling objectives.

Cities in the global South, with rapid urbanisation and density of poor communities who are reliant on informal markets, need mobilised city governance and policies that are sufficiently nuanced, integrated, coordinated and equitable, to ensure sustained availability and access to safe and nutritious food, especially for those most vulnerable to malnutrition.