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How beneficial is informality to the sustainability of urban food economy?

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One of the ever-pressing needs of every urban government is to see the residents eat healthy and adequate foods. Yet the supply of safe and nutritious food in sufficient quantity to meet daily preferences of urban residents is a major challenge for cities globally. How to sustain food supply chain within the economy of developing cities remains elusive.

In the global South, nearly 80 per cent of the urban food economy is largely controlled and dictated by informality. Out of every 50,000 metric tonnes consumed at the household levels in the city, about 45,000 metric tonnes is likely to have passed through informal food systems. The informal activities and services play a critical role in the supply, marketing and processing of consumable foods. Making the food readily available is most often left to free-enterprise choices. The informal activities, including tabletop food trading, food transporting, food farming and direct selling (hawking) of diverse food products on streets, in offices, churches and around unauthorized market places, in the view of urban governors, decision-makers and anti-sustainability experts are ‘informal’. Despite undertone resistant to formally accepting these sectors in the urban food systems; they greatly contribute to supplying food and what goes into building the systems of storage, processing and pricing of food. The informal food sector is worth over 10.8 billion Euros annually in West Africa. The cities of Lagos, Dakar, Nairobi and Bamako also variably rely on informal actors in the distribution and pricing of food products.

On the fringes of mixed ‘green and blue’ Oxford Street in Accra, trading food products is not fully informal. Both free-enterprise and planned-enterprise outlets exist that allow people to choose where to buy food. The planned-enterprises in the form of private-formalized outlets of food trade have emerged constituting less than 20 per cent of the urban food trade. The informal trading of food is still larger in terms of the volume of consumable food traded every day. A customer can decide to buy well-prepared meal from a hotel-based restaurant or buy three spoonfuls of cooked rich nicely wrapped in banana leaves. Outside of the privately formalized food outlets, selling of bananas, oranges, tomatoes and “imported” apples is dominated by women and young people who ply the street and its fringes. Though the benefits of informality is evidently indisputable, the formalized food outlets have also led to a sharp decline in the involvement of children in direct food selling by over 50 per cent as compared to other urban streets. On the Oxford Street and public market places, informality helps in keeping food prices relatively stable for the pro-poor residents. What this means is that informality plays a part in eliminating food poverty and deprivation. The surprising thing is that food prices do not significantly fluctuate in response to inflation, petroleum prices or in response to presence of foreign tourist services. Most food purchases are one-time off.  So, the buyer may pay higher prices for food without necessarily negotiating for lower prices.

There is a tight connection of food to human health, education, security and social cohesion, which makes informality of urban food markets very beneficial that requires new institutional policy attention. Today, the informal food sellers are the major suppliers of food to feed workers in the formal sector economy – banking, telecommunication, insurance, teaching and health. Thus, informality is generally greasing various knots that propel urban food economy to set a stage for creating food wealth to get to  pro-poor residents which the formal economy has not reached. The dried dawadawa, salted fish, kola nut, ‘kose’ and bushmeat are considerably traded informally. It is also realized that during and after severe disasters and hazards such as urban floods, market fires and cholera outbreaks food supply through informal distribution channels tend to reach the affected victims is quickest and reliable. Sometimes food vendors pay token levies which undoubtedly go into the promotion of urban economic development or their own associations. Food vendors have financed urban farmers to supply them certain types of fresh vegetables directly from urban farms dotted all over the cities and bigger towns. In the cities of Accra, Kumasi and Tamale, nearly 65-90 per cent of cabbage, carrot, green onion and leafy indigenous vegetables are produced and priced informally. Thus, through informal food trading, the food vendors are able to create jobs and generate incomes enabling them to participate in competitive non-food markets and social events to create their own style of “urban living”. By making food accessible to vulnerable people, informality helps to reduce nutrient-related problems thereby limiting the cost of urban health budgets. These are some of the true basic values informality feed into sustaining the urban food economy. But are these the real basis to legitimize informality? Should informality of food markets be sustained in the city? How should capacity of all actors in the informal urban food market be expertly groomed to response appropriately to the supply of nutritious and enough food to meet the needs of urban society during and after disasters like market fires and urban floods?


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