Putting informal food systems at the centre of sustainable diets

A new report from IIED and Hivos calls for a rethink about how sustainable diets can be achieved in low-income countries, with informal food systems central to that goal.

Alejandro Guarín's picture Giulia Nicolini's picture
Alejandro Guarín is senior researcher and Giulia Nicolini is a researcher in IIED's Shaping Sustainable Markets research group
16 October 2020
Jack fruit vendor spreads out their wares on the ground.

In low-income countries, most food is traded via informal networks like small stores or street vendors, but these food systems are excluded from the formal economy, marginalised, and even criminalised (Photo: Flöschen via FlickrCC BY 2.0)

COVID-19 has highlighted the global food system’s inequalities, with the disease and the measures to contain it disproportionately affecting low-income communities.

The pandemic may trigger a wave of hunger and malnutrition, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is disrupting supply chains. There too, low-income populations are both affected as consumers by price increases and are at risk of losing their livelihoods in trading, processing and vending.

The vulnerability exposed by COVID-19 is reflected in this year’s World Food Day call to make food systems more resilient to volatility and climate change, so that they can "deliver affordable and sustainable healthy diets for all, and decent livelihoods for food system workers”.

It follows the call by researchers and international organisations to improve our health through dietary change and to make food production systems less destructive of our natural environment.

The concept of sustainable healthy diets (PDF) captures the goals and ambitions of this transformation, but there are obstacles to its implementation in the largely informal food systems of lower-income countries.

Rethinking the meaning of sustainable diets

The toolbox for achieving sustainable diets has mainly been developed in the global North, and with middle class consumers in mind. In rich countries food systems are industrialised and formal, dominated by large-scale agriculture, processing and supermarkets.

A move to sustainable diets within these food systems requires changes to corporate and consumer behaviours. The ideal ‘planetary health diet’ should be low in meat and processed foods, and rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

But what do sustainable diets look like in low-income countries, where most food is produced in small farms, traded in informal networks and accessed via small stores, wet markets or street vendors?

Like much of the economy in developing countries, food systems are often organised informally: they depend on family labour, tend not to be based on contracts, and operate under the radar of government regulation and taxation.

The typical levers for promoting sustainable diets in the North – certification, voluntary guidelines and standards – may have little bearing for people in the global South. And the ideal diet mentioned above may be out of many people’s reach.

For those on low incomes, informal outlets – such as street vendors – are the main, if not only, source of affordable, nutritious and safe food. They are also a source of income for many, especially women and young people, who tend to be disproportionately excluded from the formal economy. 

It is time for international organisations to rethink sustainable diets in ways that are more relevant for people living in poverty.

Affordability and informality must be central to a revised approach to sustainable diets. If they remain a privilege of the wealthy, sustainable diets will have little impact on the health of either the planet or the majority of the world’s population.

Recognising the informal food economy as an ally of sustainable diets

Informal food systems get a bad rap. They are widely seen by their own governments and by donor governments as chaotic, unhygienic, inefficient and outdated.

Policymakers usually ignore or marginalise – if not outright criminalise – the informal economy. International donors tend to be more interested in high-value agricultural markets and seldom engage with actors in this space.

The response to COVID-19 has often been biased against informal markets. Wet markets were stigmatised early in the pandemic, lockdown measures have disproportionately affected informal vendors, and informal businesses have been excluded from rescue packages.

And yet informal food systems are working in the background, connecting farms with urban centres, often across vast distances, and doing the heavy lifting of feeding low-income consumers across the world. All of this despite, rather than thanks to, policy.

Informality is not going away any time soon. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, only a small fraction (PDF) of the population in Africa, Latin America and many parts of Asia would be able to access formal employment.

Rather than ignore or fight it, decision makers should recognise the contribution of informal food systems to sustainable diets and engage constructively with the sector to address its shortcomings and enhance its potential.

Supporting the informal food economy

Governments, donors and civil society organisations (CSOs) can take steps to support the informal food sector. The starting point should be to find common cause with those who make up the informal food economy, and understand their needs and priorities.

Well-intentioned supporters will have to work to gain the trust of informal actors, who may rightly perceive those seeking to help them as outsiders and on the ‘side’ of authorities.

Providing support with advocacy is a way in which donors and CSOs can advance the initiatives and agendas of informal food actors. Their needs are wide-ranging, from practical – improved water and sanitation in market stalls – to political. Donors and CSOs can also lend their credibility and privileged position to open opportunities for dialogue with decision makers.

And, when appropriate, they can offer direct support to finance activities, infrastructure improvements and capacity building.

Finally, data is an important element to challenge prevailing assumptions and misconceptions. If generated and interpreted in collaboration with informal actors, evidence can be a powerful tool to support advocacy and inform strategies for change.

With thanks to Bill Vorley, senior associate in IIED's Shaping Sustainable Markets research group, for his contribution to this blog.

About the author

Alejandro Guarín (alejandro.guarin@iied.org), senior researcher in IIED's Shaping Sustainable Markets research group

Giulia Nicolini (giulia.nicolini@iied.org), researcher in IIED's Shaping Sustainable Markets research group

Alejandro Guarín's picture Giulia Nicolini's picture