What makes a sustainable diet? And who decides? Make Change Happen podcast episode 5

Globally, we are producing more food than ever. But for many of the world’s poorer citizens, secure access to safe food is becoming less certain. To counter this, an advocacy programme called Sustainable Diets for All is asking: how can we create food systems that are fairer, healthier and more sustainable? We explore the programme’s citizen-led approach and hear from local partners.

Article, 05 May 2020

IIED’s ‘Make Change Happen’ podcast provides an opportunity to hear our researchers discuss key global development challenges and explain how they are working to support positive change.

The fifth episode explores Sustainable Diets for All. This advocacy programme, led by Dutch NGO Hivos and IIED, works with local partners to support civil society organisations fighting for diverse food production and better, affordable diets for everybody. 

Hosted by Liz Carlile, IIED’s director of communications, the discussion features Alejandro Guarin, senior researcher in our Shaping Sustainable Markets research group, and Costanza de Toma, who led on communications and advocacy for IIED through 2019; it features contributions from partners working in Bolivia, Kenya and Zambia.

Simple idea, complex solutions

Over the last four years, Hivos and IIED have worked with local organisations to find out how we can make sustainable diets – those that serve both planet and people – available to everybody. But this simple-sounding question masks huge complexity.

Taking what de Toma describes as a “bottom-up, citizen-led” approach, we consulted producers, vendors and consumers in Uganda, Bolivia, Indonesia, Zambia and Kenya. The findings challenged assumptions and revealed the strong influence of culture and identity: even the definition of a sustainable diet was fluid. 

But alongside their differences, the five countries did share important characteristics: a shift from eating (often healthy) traditional foods to processed foods, and a reluctance for government to engage with informal markets. 

Feeding the world (under the radar)

Guarin characterises the ‘informal market’ as based around small-scale production and small-scale retail – corner stores, not supermarkets. Informal businesses are often family-run, with little use for formalities like contracts. 

Local and national governments are often wary of engaging with this system, perceiving it as old-fashioned, hard to govern and unhygienic (the latter point being one of the myths ‘busted’ by our research). Equally, traders are keen to avoid negative attention from the authorities. 

But we cannot afford to ignore informal markets. As Guarin explains, small businesses add up; the informal market is not only a huge employer, but “this very rich and dynamic system... is really feeding most of the world right now”. 

The sustainable diets programme is bridging the gap between informal actors and policymakers. In Zambia, our ‘food council’ model creates a neutral space for dialogue between local authorities and informal traders, producers, transporters and consumers.  

And to share their lessons and compare their experiences of this approach, the programme brought together partners and colleagues from Zambia and Bolivia. 

Invisible but vital: a view from our partners

Programme partners based in Bolivia and Zambia joined the podcast to articulate the tension of informal markets as thriving but ignored spaces. 

Vladimir Garcia, working with Hivos and MIGA (the Gastronomic Integration Movement) in Bolivia, describes how the local ‘market diners’ provide arrange of fresh and cooked local foods, catering largely to working-class citizens. But amid a boom in coffee shops and restaurants, these much-relied on markets become ‘invisible’, despite offering affordable non-processed options and keeping local cuisine alive

Mangiza Chirwa is a project manager for Hivos Zambia, where about 90% of low-income households rely on the informal sector for their food. But despite research showing that the informal market is delivering nutritious food to citizens on low incomes, she found the government remains wary of engaging. Instead, our work in here focused on innovations the traders themselves could make.

In Kenya, an IIED and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) project called MoreMilk is finding a similar situation. Country lead Emma Blackmore describes how the country’s informal milk markets support poorer people’s livelihoods and nutrition despite government neglect, and even hostility; they provide products that consumers on low incomes want at convenient locations and affordable prices and pay producers more than the formal market. 

Meeting people where they are

Rooted in advocacy theory, Sustainable Diets for All works by nurturing local agendas and initiatives around food and food systems. In all five countries, there are organisations – consumer or producer – that have identified the challenges and wish to effect change. IIED and Hivos’ role has been supporting these hubs of ‘citizen agency’ to develop, network and reach policymakers

Given the scale of the informal market, small changes – like simple improvements to the infrastructure of urban markets, for better food hygiene, or the keeping of ‘food diaries’ – can grow to be transformative.

People sit around a desk and talk into microphones

Closing the episode, Guarin summarises the ‘operating principle’ that has guided his work: “If you take seriously the idea that we need sustainable diets... you also realise that it has to be meaningful, and it has to be appropriate for people in their context, in their incomes, in their traditions. [This] leads you very closely and very easily into the informal market because this is where most people are getting their food. 

“So you need to first understand what people want, and why they want it. Then you can start thinking of change.”


Head and shoulders photo of Alejandro Guarin

Alejandro Guarin is a senior researcher in IIED’s Shaping Sustainable Markets research group. He leads IIED’s work on agro-food systems, from smallholder farming to small-scale entrepreneurship, informal markets and retail, and consumption and nutrition.

Head and shoulders photo of Costanza de Toma

Costanza de Toma is a communications and advocacy consultant with 20 years' experience in international development. She helped lead the Sustainable diets for all project for IIED throughout 2019.

Head and shoulders photo of Liz Carlile

Liz Carlile (host) is director of the Communications Group at IIED. She is an expert in strategic marketing and communications, with a particular focus on research communications and policy influence, and has published on social learning and climate change communications.

How to listen and subscribe

The ‘Make Change Happen’ podcast will provide informal insights into IIED’s work to create positive change and make the complex issues we face more accessible to wider audiences. The title refers to IIED’s 2019-2024 strategy, which sets out how IIED plans to respond to the critical challenges of our time.

You can subscribe to the podcast on your favourite podcast app as follows:

The podcast is also available on IIED's YouTube channel.

Follow the panellists @lizcarlile and @cos_detoma on Twitter, while other organisations and partners are @hivos, @migaboliviaa and @ILRI.

Follow the podcast on @IIED_Voices for all the latest updates.