How do the cities we live
in shape what we eat?

Being able to put healthy, nutritious food on the table, day after day, calls for a steady flow of cash into the household, which means having a job, a small business, or a social grant

Being able to put healthy, nutritious food on the table, day after day, calls for a steady flow of cash into the household, which means having a job, a small business, or a social grant

5 Kapenta Road

No city is an island, surviving as a discrete and self-contained economy that meets all its own needs. It is tethered to wider trade networks that may start 100 kilometres, or half a planet, away. The foods that end up in our city market places, and how much that food costs, are shaped by global and regional trade policies, and economic forces that might be far outside the minds of the people managing our cities and their local economies. Looking at the fish sold in the markets of Kitwe, Zambia, we explore the complex weave of global and regional trade routes that feed into our cities’ food markets and ultimately shape what arrives on our plates in a globalised world.

Fridah Siyanga-Tembo’s mother knows how to cook fish. Most Zambians do, because freshwater fish from the region’s many lakes and rivers are a staple here in southern Africa, and one of the most affordable forms of protein.

Fresh fish is delicious, of course, but since many people still don’t have fridges – either in the outdoor markets, or at home – they can’t keep it for long without it spoiling. So, processing and preserving fish as soon as it’s lifted from the water is the best way to give it a bit of a shelf life.

Fresh, smoked, sundried, or salted, when it comes to cooking fish, east Africans will fry it, stew it, boil it, roast it, bake it, serve it with relish and vegetables, or simply spoon it over nshima, a maize-meal porridge. You name it, there’s no shortage of ideas on how to prepare this local favourite.

When Siyanga-Tembo was a little girl, and the family lived in Kafue Gorge where the giant hydropower station is, about 100 kilometres south of Lusaka, traders would walk door to door with fresh bream caught by local fisherman in the Kafue River. Her mother would scale and gut the fish, chop it into pieces, and fry it. Then she’d cook up a gravy of onions and tomatoes, and add the fried fish to make a stew.

A vegetable relish is popular for most people here, and if a family’s budget allows, they’ll add some form of meat protein to it, often fish.

“You can also cook smoked fish like this,” the 33-year-old environmental scientist says. “We don’t eat this preserved fish like a snack, but because it’s already almost cooked, we either fry it up and add it to a gravy, or cook it up like a stew, so it gets really tender. Some people prefer to make the gravy for the fried fish separately.”

Now that she is living with her husband in Lusaka, Siyanga-Tembo doesn’t eat fish that much anymore. This is partly because she hasn’t quite taken her mother’s flair for cooking this kind of food, and partly because her husband tends to cook the fish. He has a ‘special nostalgia’ for his family’s way of preparing kapenta, so he prefers to cook it himself.

Kapenta can be a bit sensitive. How long you leave it on the hob for determines if it goes hard, crispy or soft. I don’t actually know what my husband does to the fish. He doesn’t add any spice, but he has a special technique that keeps it soft.”

Today, Siyanga-Tembo’s fellow Zambians still eat the same kinds of fish as when she was a child: the smaller species such as Siavonga kapenta from Lake Kariba on the southern border, or Mpulungu kapenta lifted straight out of the waters of Lake Tanganyika in the north; a rainbow of bream types; tilapia; although she says there are fewer red-breasted bream and mbowa these days, because of overfishing.

When Siyanga-Tembo signed up to do her master’s degree in environmental sciences through the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2015 and became part of the Consuming Urban Poverty (CUP) team, she decided to take a look at where Zambia’s fish comes from nowadays, how it gets to the markets, and who’s buying and eating it. What she found hints at just how much the world has changed since she was a child, because the fish being sold at her local fresh produce market could just as easily have come by road from a small fishing boat that has trawled the shores of Lake Tanganyika 1 000 kilometres away, as it could have come off an ocean-faring ship along the Namibian coast hunting for mackerel, or been shipped into the country as frozen stock from a Chinese export harbour half a planet away.

Kitwe is Zambia’s second largest city, with a population of just over half a million, and has one of the largest informal economies in the country. For the poorer people in the city, maize and veggies are the bedrock of their diet, topped up with fish and meat when people have a bit of extra cash. (When Siyanga-Tembo and her CUP colleagues spoke to people in Kitwe to get an idea of what they had eaten in their homes in the previous 24 hours, almost everyone said they had eaten cereals, mostly maize (98%); most said they had eaten vegetables in that time (83%); a third said they had eaten fish (33%); and a quarter said they had eaten meat or chicken (24%).)

But, as often happens for households on the breadline, as soon as food prices go up or they run out of cash, they cut back on nutrient-rich foods and fall back on a diet that is bulky but low in goodness – mostly starchy foods.

Siyanga-Tembo’s expertise of zooming in on the supply chainsthatbring fish into Kitwe, Zambia, helped feed into the CUP team’s process of charting the complicated network of modern global and local trade shipping routes that shape the kinds of staple foods that make it into the markets in the three study cities, how much that food costs, and how poorer city-living people respond to the consequences of the various trade policies and market forces at play in the system.

The big five

After mapping the food-buying patterns of the people in Kitwe, Kisumu and Epworth, it is clear where these city dwellers are not getting their food: from farmers growing crops or tending livestock within the boundaries of the city (see Chapter 1: The Hungry Season). The take-home message is for policymakers not to try and plug the food gap by focusing only on drawing up urban food-security policy that assumes all food will be grown within the borders of the city.

People are buying most of their food. And they are getting it from many different sources, both in informal and formal markets. And we now have a good idea why they are doing this (see Chapter 1: The Hungry Season, and Chapter 3: Cinderella Markets).

The take-home message here is that local governments need to support informal markets more than they currently are by giving them the infrastructure and service delivery support they need so they can operate cleanly and efficiently.

Local government also needs to allow marketeers to set up their operations close to where the customers are – near city centres, and close to the foot traffic in and around shopping malls, supermarkets, and public transport hubs such as taxi ranks and train stations.

But what do we really know about the origins of the food that finally ends up in the local supermarket, or restaurant, in an open-air market stall, or on the barbecue grill of a street-food vendor? And how should local governments plan for this so they can make sure that the food and nutritional needs of the urban poor are taken care of?

To answer these questions, the CUP teams took five of the most commonly eaten foods in their three focus cities, and tracked them back along their respective supply chains to map their sources and the routes they’d travelled along to get to the markets. This also gave them a chance to overlay onto these maps an understanding of the kinds of global and regional policy and market forces that might influence those trade routes and the commodities travelling along them.

The researchers chose to map the value chains of maize meal (what people call ugali in Kenya, and nshima in Zambia), fish, vegetables, porridge and eggs. They found that these foods follow complicated value chains, with many different actors operating on the respective routes that the food travels along in order to reach the various cities (see The routes to market).

The picture that emerges is that, in terms of food access and the urban poor, globalisation is a double-sided coin.

As discussed earlier in this book, globalisation of trade has eaten away at our good nutrition like floodwaters stripping away topsoil (see Chapter 2: Big is Beautiful). The explosion of industrial food processing and the big businesses that drive it has flooded much of the world with food-like products that have a long shelf life, are cheap and tasty, and are packaged and marketed to be desirable with their high-status brands. They are often physically filling in the short term, but nutritionally dead. Supermarkets are like the streams and tributaries that feed these products into our cities, speeding up our switch from traditional diets made up largely of more wholesome, fresh foods, to a diet that is less diverse and made up largely of these industrial food-like products.

The industrialised food system has also brought a host of agricultural practices and policies that nudge farmers towards pushing out volumes of staple foods rather than diverse fresh foods, resulting in a food system packed with starchy energy, but not necessarily good nutrition (see A staple diet is not a stable diet).

The flip side of the globalisation coin, though, is that international trade networks now mean the modern-day African city is not an island in its own region anymore, but is connected to a complicated network of trade routes that have helped the urban poor by plugging so many of the hunger gaps. Commodities moving along these networks allow calories to flow through the entire system, all year around, overcoming normal seasonal dips in agricultural production, or shortages linked to regional climate shocks such as droughts. If avocados don’t grow in Namibia, import them from Mozambique; if onions are out of season in northern Zambia, ship them in from South Africa. If the El Niño weather system brings regional drought to southern Africa, causing grain stocks to crash, governments can import a surplus from Russia or the USA.

The CUP researchers wanted to understand the different scales at which these food trade routes operate, whether they intersect at all, and what this means for food access for cash-strapped city dwellers in this part of Africa.

This matters, because it allows us to test older assumptions that regard global and local food flows as operating discretely of one another, explains CUP researcher Dr Jane Battersby.

By taking these big five food items across the three cities, and tracking them back along their respective supply chains, the researchers found that these supply routes are fluid, and that food comes from many different places locally, regionally, and globally. They also found that imported foods often complement and support local supply, in a way that fills the hunger gap for urban consumers.

The researchers also found that it wasn’t just the trade routes themselves that crossed different scales and worked symbiotically, but that the cities’ formal and informal markets, which take delivery of the goods shipped to them from different parts of the world, have also negotiated an interesting symbiosis.

Even though supermarkets appear to be pushing informal traders out of the urban food market in some ways, and getting preferential treatment from local governments (see Chapter 3: Cinderella Markets), they nevertheless still contribute to the food resilience of the urban poor. Poorer urbanites buy most of their food from informal traders, but still shop at supermarkets from time to time. And supermarkets have become an important wholesale supplier to informal traders, who capitalise on the lower prices for bulk-buying, then repackage this stock to meet the restrictions of the cash-strapped shopper.

To return to Siyanga-Tembo’s exercise of mapping Zambia’s city fish supplies, it’s clear that poorer shoppers buy most of their fish from informal markets. But while these informal traders are dependent on a diverse range of suppliers – local suppliers, regional traders, and importers who bring in fish from as far afield as Namibia or China – it’s the imported fish coming through formal markets that’s generally cheaper than similar kinds of fish caught locally. “Mackerel from Namibia, for instance, looks similar to buka fish from Lake Tanganyika, and is cheaper than locally caught fish,” says Siyanga-Tembo.

These multiple supply chains create a diverse source of supply to formal and informal markets that’s a boon for most poorer Kitwe households, because they ensure ample protein all year around, and usually at prices that people can afford on their tight budgets.

From the perspective of poorer families, it doesn’t really matter where the fish comes from, as long as it’s affordable, says Siyanga-Tembo.

“People in Kitwe are buying their fish in supermarkets and in informal markets,” she says. “But it’s mostly the middle and higher-income families who are shopping in the supermarkets. Poorer families are still mostly buying at the open-air markets.”

Poorer households often can’t afford the imported fish in the supermarkets because it’s sold in volumes that make a single-item purchase – say, one large bag containing lots of small frozen fish – out of reach for their wallets.

This is where the informal fish traders come into their own. They will either buy the frozen stock directly from formal retailers who bought stock from the importers, and then repackage the thawed fish into smaller sizes that are more within the reach of a tighter budget. Or they will buy preserved and processed fish, which have a longer shelf life, from local fishermen or fellow traders, and sell the fish in smaller and more flexible volumes.

“Traders will sell the smaller fish types by the container and at prices that meet a poorer family’s budget of, say, 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 kwacha. Compare that to a single bigger fish that might sell for 180 kwacha. That’s quite a lot of money for a poorer family,” Siyanga-Tembo says.

These informal traders are more flexible in the pricing and the quantities they sell, and they’re also open to haggling a bit over the price. Siyanga-Tembo’s research also shows the importance of middlemen in the fish value chain when it comes to the final price of the product when it hits shop shelves: the more agents there are in the journey from net to plate, the greater the price increases along the way. Some traders try to work around this, which helps poorer consumers because it keeps the price of the fish down.

“Some traders manage to reduce their prices by cutting out middlemen along the distribution chain,” Siyanga-Tembo explains. “A trader from Kitwe, for instance, might catch a public bus north to Mpulungu on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It’s about a 1 000-kilometre trip. Or she might travel to Bangweulu in Samfya, about 300 kilometres away. She’ll spend a few days in town, buying two or three 90-kilogram bags of preserved fish, and then travel back home to Kitwe.”

She’ll have to pay the shipping costs of the stock on the return trip, but it still ends up being cheaper than if there were several other agents handling the fish along the way, where each adds a small markup.

“What some traders in Kitwe might do, if they have family up in Mpulungu, is ask a family member to buy the stock for them and put it on one of the buses coming down to Kitwe. Then they’re just paying for the transport costs.”

From the customer’s perspective, she doesn’t care if the stock came from Lake Tanganyika or a port in China. She’s not concerned if she’s supporting local markets or not. Her main concern is whether she can afford to buy the fish and feed her family that night.

This brings us back to the question of what the take-home message is for policymakers, not just in terms of local governments planning for their cities to be more food secure, but also for national governments who are negotiating the country’s trade policies.

It’s not a ‘zero sum’ game

In the world of economics, a ‘zero sum’ game is one where you are either the winner or the loser, there’s no shared good outcome for both teams. The winner takes all and the loser goes home empty-handed.

After mapping the fish value chains feeding into Kitwe’s markets, Siyanga-Tembo says the take-home message for governments is that, when it comes to creating trade policies for food imports, the state mustn’t treat it as a zero sum game where one market is protected at the cost of another.

An opinion piece in the Lusaka Times in 2017 floats the idea that the Zambian state should throttle back fish imports into the country as a way of protecting domestic fishing and aquaculture and the jobs these industries could boost. “Why is Zambia importing 40 000 tons of fish per year when there’s so much potential for local supply?” the writer asks. A protectionist trade policy like this might be a shot in the arm for the local fishing industry, and encourage investment in the production side of the value chain. But, as Siyanga-Tembo’s value chain mapping exercise shows, it might come at the cost of the urban poor. Scarcity pushes up the price of all kinds of fish, from all sources, which narrows the food choice for the poor. “Lower-income households will lose out because they won’t be able to buy the imported fish from China, in this case.”

Then there’s the question of national trade policy, which can have a direct bearing on the cost of fish in open-air markets in Zambia, such as the Chisokone Market: trade arrangements with the Democratic Republic of Congo allow this neighbouring country to buy up some of Zambia’s fresh water fish catch. This might bring foreign exchange into the national coffers, but will reduce the volume of fish available in the domestic market and push up the price of this key source of protein on the streets of Kitwe.

Each one of the supply chain studies – for maize meal, fish, vegetables, porridge and eggs – across the three cities, shows that the dynamics unfolding in sub-Saharan Africa’s cities are the result of food systems that span many different scales, be they local, regional, or global. They show how each of these is, in turn, shaped by trade policies and market forces that are often outside the jurisdiction of the city manager. And they show the interconnected relationship between informal and formal markets as the final distribution nodes for the stock that flows along those trade routes.

“If you’re a policymaker, you can’t insist on protecting just one of those systems. It’s complex, and the global food system is also meeting local needs. You have to look after all the various food systems.”

Early in 2017, the Zambian government announced an import ban on certain fresh fruit and vegetables. The Lusaka Times reported that the Minister of Agriculture said this ban followed lobbying by Zambian farmers, who claimed that the imports were hurting them. The ban mostly applied to the type of produce that local suppliers were growing, such as tomatoes, onions, carrots, mangoes, potatoes, pineapples, lemons, and watermelons.

The move was supported by the public policy think-tank Policy Monitoring and Research Centre (PMRC), which said this move showed the state’s commitment to creating a “sustainable, diversified and competitive agriculture sector, which has immense potential to improve the livelihoods of the people”. The Small- Scale Farmers Union also supported the ban, saying it was “good and long overdue”.

But the push-back came from South African retail chains Shoprite and Food Lover’s Market, who told the Zambian press that local suppliers were “unreliable” and “irregular” in terms of delivering produce to their stores, and that the quality was inconsistent. This, they said, forced retailers to source from their own farmers down south.

South African retail chains have had a growing presence in southern Africa since the country opened to global markets following the 1994 democratic elections and the lifting of trade and political sanctions against the country. The economic strength of these private corporates has given them considerable bargaining power when it comes to negotiating favourable regional trade agreements.

But it wasn’t long after initiating the import ban that the Zambian government quickly reversed its decision, announcing that the policy contravened some of the country’s international trade agreements, according to the BBC news’ Kennedy Gondwe.

The BBC report highlights concerns that small-scale farmers aren’t able to compete with larger commercial farming interests, partly owing to “capacity constraints”. Protectionist trade policies can ripple through a city’s food network, and shouldn’t be made without first making sure that local suppliers and infrastructure can fill the gap.

Regional trade policies to protect local producers

The tomatoes sold by an informal trader in the Chisokone Market in downtown Kitwe are red and bursting with ripeness. Yet those in the nearby Shoprite supermarket are still hard, and a tad on the green side.

“Which of these tomatoes would you as a customer choose to buy?” asks CUP researcher Dr Jane Battersby. “The answer tells a lot about how you live in the food system.”

“The scale of the food system now, particularly with imports and exports happening as they do, means that it can supply consumers with the foods they need all year round,” she explains, “and it provides different market segments with different needs.”

The tomatoes in the Kitwe market are usually locally grown and ready to eat, while the tomatoes in the supermarket are imported, and are put on the shelves with the view that they will still sit in someone’s kitchen for a few more days, waiting to ripen. The informal market tomatoes are targeting the lower-income consumer who is buying mostly to eat today, while the supermarket is targeting the wealthier consumer who might have a fridge and other storage means at home and can stock up with groceries.

Tomay-toh, tomah-toh

When it comes to food imports, red tape has a big role to play in what foodstuffs get imported into a country, by whom, and at what cost, as a comparison between maize and rice into Zimbabwe shows.

The cost of permits to ship maize across the border in bulk, and the complexity of the paperwork involved, discourages wholesalers from importing maize themselves. But smaller cross-border traders who deal with smaller volumes don’t have to pay taxes or get permits. That means smaller traders have become important maize importers, who make regular cross-border trips and supply the wholesalers. Rice imports, on the other hand, aren’t as tightly regulated because the state doesn’t see it as an important staple. This policy approach has allowed “different actors… to assert disproportionate power along the value chain, resulting in price volatility and product instability”.

Zimbabwe imports as much as 95% of its rice, and most of the imports are either through the government’s Grain Marketing Board, or through private wholesalers and cross-border traders. Most of the imports come from China, Vietnam and Singapore, but also from neighbouring South Africa and Mozambique.

The rice that travels across very long value chains has higher transport costs, which are passed on to the customer even after the foodstuff has been ‘bulk-broken’. Rice that follows shorter value chains is obviously cheaper.

Shorter value-chains in this context result in lower food prices, which have the potential to reduce food poverty in the area.

Red tape and rice: a story from the streets of Epworth

A single poultry farm in Kibos on the outskirts of Kisumu supplies most of the eggs to supermarkets and eateries in this Kenyan city, according to the CUP supply chain mapping exercise.

This farm can’t meet the city’s total demand, so eggs are shipped in from nakuru and naivasha towns in nakuru County, about 180 kilometres east of here, and also from neighbouring Uganda.

The Ugandan imported eggs, though, are cheaper on the streets of Kisumu than the locally farmed eggs. This, according to the researchers, is because the Ugandan government subsidises animal feeds.

Another factor is Kisumu’s failing provincial road infrastructure in and around the city. The region’s rail and waterway transportation systems have failed in recent years, pushing all freight onto roads, which are now also badly degraded, adding significantly to food transportation costs.

Since regional arterial roads are better maintained, eggs such as those imported from Uganda along the national highways will have a lower transport cost per kilometre than those shipped in from local sources along the degraded rural roads. This basic road maintenance issue ultimately results in a boost for cross-border trade, while prejudicing local egg suppliers.

Many of Kisumu’s shop owners say that the second biggest cost to their businesses, after buying stock, is the cost of transport.

Ugandan egg sales benefit from domestic grain subsidies
CHAPTERS: 1234567