Moving to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, I was fascinated by the duka (small shop) selling food and household goods on almost every street. I was equally fascinated by the people’s markets - vibrant social spaces, full of many small traders who know each other and most of their customers - which were within walking distance of the places where I lived. This interest resulted in my research on how Dar es Salaam’s close to five million residents are fed. This has important lessons for sustainably feeding our growing and urbanizing world population.
Following the eggs
Early on I followed the eggs that were sold, in any quantity, from a stack of reused 30-egg cardboard trays, at my local duka. To see where they came from I cycled with Samuel, who delivered the eggs. After 22 kms we reached Samuel’s peri-urban home and sat under a tree eating lunch with his family. Samuel keeps 100 chickens and buys eggs for cash from chicken farmers in the neighborhood. He buys 600 to 900 eggs in the evening and rides into town to sell them the following morning. At that time, his three trips a week made a profit that was two and a half times the minimum wage for a full-time agricultural worker. Quantitative analysis found that around a million eggs a week were transported into town just on bicycles along the road Samuel used. This environmentally friendly way of distributing fresh eggs is a key supplier to the city and is how thousands of people create reasonable quality livelihoods for themselves.
Further research revealed how the egg industry is integrated within a wider food system. Samuel buys chicken feed from a feed factory close enough to carry the sacks home in a wheelbarrow. The feed factory obtains the core ingredient of maize bran from local mills, of which there are over 2,000 in Dar es Salaam. Chicken droppings are used as manure for horticulture, and the vegetables grown are sold in markets and to neighbors.
My research followed other foods important to the majority of people in the city: maize, rice, milk, beef, and green vegetables. While the nature of the foods was different and the geographic sources ranged from the city itself to the far corners of the country, the organization of the food production and distribution had similarities. Much of the green vegetables and milk, like the eggs, comes from urban and peri-urban production complemented by produce trucked in from hundreds of kilometers away. Rice and maize is grown by millions of farmers in the hinterland, most with just a few hectares of land, who produce for home consumption, replanting and selling to traders. The traders, working with local agents who are often farmers themselves, reach into remote villages and pay cash even for small quantities, then aggregate it for transporting, mostly to Dar es Salaam, sometimes via regional markets. The traders arrange transport, processing, and distribution to retail outlets like the duka and people’s markets. The trucks are hired as needed from many different transport businesses. Much maize milling and rice husking is done by paying per sack or kilo to use milling machines owned by local business people.
A “symbiotic food system”
This food system providing most of the city’s food comprises multitudes of small-scale actors, from farmers to retailers, who together deliver at a city feeding scale with no corporate and little direct state involvement, aside from tax collection. I call this a “symbiotic food system” as other terminology, such as “informal,” doesn’t do it justice. Symbiotic doesn’t mean all relations are equal, but they are mutually beneficial and not predatory, or they wouldn’t be sustained. The actors operate in socially embedded economic relations that involve a tension between competition and working collaboratively; a striving for autonomy as well as solidarity. In some cases, such as with municipal markets, there are formalized structures with elected committees and stated rules that fit common pool resource management principles. More often, however, collaboration takes place organically with no explicitly stated rules, structures, or contracts. Interdependent actors, with relatively equitable status and common cultural repertoires, trade with each other and work together, based on established norms and relationships of, at least, familiarity. Reciprocity is part of these norms, but not confined to narrow and direct material exchanges. Collaboration - such as sharing transport and information, market traders watching over each other’s stalls and assisting with childcare – overcomes resource constraints, and creates valuable social networks. This is not based on purposive solidarity (although solidarity develops through its practice) or altruism, but rather on what works within a particular context. That context, in Tanzania, includes protection of agriculture from international competition through tariffs and other measures, and a history of state interventions that limited capital accumulation by a few.
An important form of mutual assistance is how new entrants - whether farmers, traders, or retailers - get started. Invariably, people start their own enterprises with assistance from others – family, friends and acquaintances - already in the same business, who show them the opportunity and ways of working and introduce them to key actors. From a narrow economic perspective, they are helping to create their own competitors, but they are also creating future collaborators. Samuel started egg trading after another trader showed him the routes and shops he could supply. Rice and maize traders begin by traveling with an existing trader to the producing areas and being introduced to traders and farmers. Shopkeepers normally start as shop assistants, serving as a form of apprenticeship allowing them to learn and save money to start their own business. Such mechanisms expand the system through replication, keep it equitable, and induct new entrants into the established norms.
All the foods produced in Tanzania and distributed through the symbiotic food system are cheaper from the duka and people’s markets than from the supermarkets. In addition, these outlets make the food more accessible as they are close to people, sell in any quantity the eater wants (or can afford), stay open late, and provide interest-free credit to regular customers they know. Farmers also get better prices selling through the symbiotic food system than if they supply supermarkets or other corporate value chains.
Impacts on the food supply system
Three international supermarket groups have collapsed or pulled out of Tanzania since 2014. A number of planned large-scale agricultural investments, including large land deals, have also collapsed or fallen far short of their targets, including the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor that was backed by corporations, including Monsanto, Yara, and Unilever, as well as by multilateral bodies (e.g. G8, World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization) when launched at the World Economic Forum in 2010.
Despite these failures, food is on the shelves in Dar es Salaam. Tanzanian maize and rice production, still by small-scale farmers, has increased substantially over the last fifteen years, keeping pace with a city that has doubled in size, growing by 2.5 million people since 2002. Samuel has increased his deliveries from three to five times per week, supplying the same duka and a few new ones.