Keeping the food markets working during pandemics


Traders at Githurai Market, Kiambu. Covid-enforced lockdowns and other containment measures curtailed the operations of food markets. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The challenge of providing adequate and continuous supply of safe and nutritious food for an ever-increasing population has never been greater, especially due to shocks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The lockdowns and other containment measures cut off food supplies and curtailed wet food markets operations.

Additionally, this led to reduced incomes in families and hence reduced spending by customers, culminating in diminished earnings by market food vendors.

According to a survey conducted by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), in collaboration with the county governments of Kiambu and Machakos in 2021, 95 percent of food vendors felt the number of customers in the markets decreased substantially during the pandemic.

Diminished earnings

Up to 60 percent of the vendors used marketing strategies such as additional discounts, credit and advertisements, to increase the number of customers or sales. This led to diminished earnings with some vendors even reporting losses.

The survey indicates that 78 per cent of the vendors experienced a change in their suppliers; increase in supplier’s prices, and relying on fewer supplies.

This was despite 94 per cent of the food vendors observing changes including the mandatory wearing of face masks and the setup of hand-washing/sanitiser stations by the market authorities.

One-third of those vendors reporting a change in suppliers also noted an increase in supplier’s prices; where some had to rely on fewer suppliers, and, in some instances, the suppliers changed the supplied products in the last month.

The findings of this survey point to the urgent need for measures to mitigate those risks and keep affordable nutritious foods flowing in our markets.

Such measures include supporting effective policy-making and coordination with the aim of better understanding the experiences of the urban food system during the pandemic — especially traditional food markets which provide vital access to food for the most vulnerable.

This is besides market infrastructure changes — including the repair of drainage systems, proper sanitation facilities, provision of water and detergents, shades, and security lights.

But how can we ensure a policy-making and coordination process that will facilitate and guarantee seamless supply and availability of safe and nutritious foods in our markets?

First, the process should begin with collecting evidence and understanding urban food environments and the wider food systems in which they are embedded. It should also be attentive to stakeholder voices as well as local government mandates, budgets and any existing food and nutrition policy.

The policy options coming from such a process should coherently connect, where possible, with existing food systems and nutrition policy strategies across government spheres as well as those explicitly or implicitly recognised in local government mandates, regulations and plans.

The policy should be part of an emergency response that addresses the particularities of cities or urban counties and their food environments; while being attentive to those most vulnerable, like the urban poor, informal market vendors as well as being gender-sensitive.

Additionally, it should foster present and future proactive, participatory ‘one city’ action by local policymakers and other urban food system stakeholders.

As part of efforts to overcome challenges arising from Covid-19, local governments, in cities and urban counties, have been coordinating with national and provincial governments alongside initiatives from local or international organisations.

Safety nets

For example, on expanded forms of social safety nets, reduced or temporary removal of taxes and bank charges, communication campaigns, and nutritional and medical support services.

Even so, many of those in the informal sector, like food market workers and street vendors, have not benefited sufficiently from these measures because of their informality (lack of necessary records or papers).

Within local governments, policy-makers have a variety of mandated powers and policy options that can be better shaped to respond to the pandemic and mitigate impacts on food security and nutrition.

Applied principles of good governance alongside other policy options like regulation, urban planning, economic incentives, public procurement and communication campaigns, can help reshape the food system within urban counties.

Stakeholders should encompass elected and administrative officials in the public sector, representatives of the private sector, including SMEs and public and private partnerships, community-based organisations, non-governmental/non-profit organisations, and research centres and academics.

Ultimately, local policy and coordination around emergency responses to the pandemic also contribute to pursuing the realisation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and addressing urban resilience — the capacity for people, nature and their social, economic and environmental systems, to cope with sudden change and continue to develop.

It involves mitigation, adaption, transformation and innovation, and learning.

Okoko is a knowledge management expert and communication researcher