The case of Dar es Salaam

Local farmers and local distributors belong in a modern economy, not just the horse and buggy age

Is it possible to enjoy a localized, job-rich and convivial food economy in a very large (4 million-plus), fast-growing and culturally dynamic city?

The answer from the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam on the ocean coast of eastern Africa appears to be ….. a resounding yes!

Africa doesn’t fit most people’s stereotype of a place where glimpses of a future based on food abundance might be found. But according to a study just released by an academic journal, Agriculture, Dar es Salaam has the food-based infrastructure and social practices needed for a sustainable world, and they’re “already working at scale.”

Based on info in two academic articles by Marc Wegerif, I’d like to draw some lessons that people from Dar es Salaam can teach all of us.

Wegerif is a longtime human rights advocate in southern Africa, and a former campaigner for Oxfam, as well as a doctoral student at Wageningen, a leading agriculture researc university in the Netherlands. He brings a nice combination of passion for human rights and discipline in research and analysis. (For a brief intro to Wegerif, see this.)

Marc Wegerif, human rights activist, studied Dar es Salaam for his Ph D

My introduction to Wegerif comes from his article on how eggs make their way into homes of Dar es Salaam. That persuaded me that Dar es Salaam’s independence from global food corporations could work in cities where most people survived on low incomes and restricted diets. But I wasn’t convinced that local firms could handle the more affluent cities of the Global North, where literally tens of thousands of foods are kept in stock.

But the range and quality of foods discussed in a just-released article by Wegerif and Paul Hebinck (a senior scholar at Wageningen) makes Dar es Salaam’s corporate independence much more of a relevant model for the world.

Putting their eggs in 1000 baskets

In the Wegerif article about egg distribution, I learned that a third of Tanzania’s people are undernourished, and close to 40 per cent of five year-olds (26 per cent in cities) are stunted from malnutrition. Many people suffer from searing poverty. Only one in ten can afford a motorized bike or car. Fewer than half have electricity at home. Fewer than a quarter have fridges at home. Apartments are so crowded that cooking is often done in yards, using wood fires or charcoal. Eggs are a mainstay of the diet, much more important for protein and nutrients than meat, cheese and pulses.

Yet residential neighborhoods are vital, and the people and shopkeepers are agents of their food system, not just victims of poverty and underdevelopment, as many western development thinkers continue to believe.

Eggs are commonly sold unpackaged, a handful at a time, for about 16 cents each — cheaper than those sold in bulk packages to the elite at supermarkets. Short-term credit is available for people who lack the funds on any particular day. Across from a typical store selling eggs and maize in a low-income neighborhood is a social space, where people sit or stand around and talk. Another outlet sells cooked egg and chip omelet, and provides a place for people to sit and eat, and perhaps buy a drink from vendors walking by. Some egg vendors sell door to door. There is also a nearby “people’s market” where a wide range of foods are sold by some 90 vendors.

Roadside markets offer variety and a human scale needed in a society where many face income insecurity

the road less travelled (by car)

Eggs are mostly delivered to city stores by self-employed bicycle couriers coming from small chicken farms on the outskirts of the city. Wegerif calculated that 1000 bicycle trips brought in 600,000 eggs during a typical week. Eggs are also transported by individuals taking public transit. City shops are mostly a short walk away from most buyers.

The distribution system, in other words, is based on a short and basically fossil fuel-free and package-free methods that offer ultra-fresh product at a low price, sold in volumes that are practical for low-income sellers and buyers. The vendors and distributors don’t need a lot of money to go into business, and the eaters don’t need a lot of money to set up kitchen facilities. Most of the eggs are laid by chickens that live a free-range life, pecking away at food scraps and crop waste. The staple of daily life comes with a small ecological “hoofprint,” Wegerif believes.

The system also provides a wide range of jobs for male (not so much female) producers and distributors. It also supports community vitality and warm low-cost meeting places in the kinds of neighborhoods that might succumb to loneliness and despair in more impersonal European or North American cities.

These are not the fish that got away!!!

The supermarket revolution hasn’t won out in Dar es Salaam yet, and doesn’t seem to be a necessary or positive step toward progress, Wegerif believes. Nor do the lives of people on low income seem as desolate or hopeless as is portrayed in books such as Davis’ Planet of Slums. The vendors and deliverers prefer their personal independence to steadier and more controlled work as employees.

City planners should support enhancements of this humble kind of local food system, Wegerif argues, and forego the temptations of majestic plans laid out around highways for motorized trucks making their way to modern supermarkets in anonymous neighborhoods.

“The notion of ‘food chains,’ along with the related concepts of supply chains and value chains, focus on a linear and rigid linking of various actors, and are often based on assumptions that corporations , including supermarkets, are an inevitable part of the future,” he argues. “It is time to move away from thinking in this way,” he says, and start “valuing and encouraging vibrant patterns of provisioning that can be replicated and adapted, giving food eaters and producers more choices. Let us support the weaving of patterns of sustainable food provisioning from the many strands that link many different interdependent actors together.”

This is the stuff of “people-centered food policy.”

free range food

Wegerif’s newest article, just released in a special issue of Agriculture available for free on the Internet, refers to Dar es Salaam as having a “symbiotic” food system performing many positive functions and already working at the scale needed for a large and fast-growing city. The system he depicts is virtually free-range, with few vertically-operated global corporations.

Most of the food eaten in Tanzania has been grown by smallhold farmers working relatively small plots of about 1.3 hectares. Thanks to them, the country is self-reliant in greens, meat and eggs and in some grains. Fish from the coast are also plentiful. Malnutrition persists at unacceptably high levels, mainly because of poverty, not food shortages.

Farmers markets are central to the city’s food system and to the sociability that marks it and lends it what Wegerif calls its “symbiotic” quality — loaded with social interaction and capacity-building self-organization, as well as physical nutrients. Markets provide “the social infrastructure holding the system together in a way that is markedly different from the corporate agri-business system,” Wegerif writes.

As he sees it, farmers markets are part of the urban commons — free space where people spend their free time, as well as conducting the business of buying and selling food. As is common with commons, there are many stakeholders in a commons who benefit in many ways and who all participate in setting the rules that conserve the community resource it provides — whether it be a fishery, a meadow, a forest, or a farmers market.

commons sense

A commons is not run like the private sector, where ownership and rewards are to individual businesses or corporations; nor are they ruled like the government-run public sector. The commons belongs in the independent community sector.

The centrality of the market in Dar es Salaam’s food distribution system is another way of referring to the centrality of the community sector.

Wegerif gives many examples of how independent vendors and business owners help each other out, often to the point of one vendor filling in for a nearby competing vendor who was called away on a family emergency. The competition of the marketplace, the so-called “race to the bottom,” is held at bay.

That kind of supportive relationship among what might seem to be competing businesses is a common feature of urban food systems everywhere. Restaurants in a city’s Little Italy or Chinatown, for example, are sometimes described as having a relationship of “coopetition” — half cooperation, half competition. All the restaurants benefit from the fact that so many people keen to eat Italian food come to Little Italy and cooperate to boost the area, but all the restaurants also compete to attract guests.

Dar es Salaam businesses also enjoy what in the West is called a rich “B2B sector,” where one local business helps another by buying supplies locally, so that a restaurant supports a bookkeeper and a communications firm, as well as many farmers and food artisans.

The marketplace of the farmer, food vendors, food artisans and restaurants, in other words, is worlds apart from their ostensible namesake — the market of the supermarket or the “free” market of the World Trade Organization. Community markets might more properly be called “nested markets” or “common pool resources,” Wegerif argues, in common with many other food system thinkers

The food system of Dar es Salaam is far from perfect, especially when it comes to food security — a set of challenges that go beyond the ability of cooperative distributions systems to correct. However, the power of the Dar es Salaam community sector to fashion a food distribution system that reduces fossil fuels and packaging to a minimum while optimizing job creation, social connection and community capacity sets a high standard for how a large and dynamic city could operate.

Wegerif and his co-author Paul Hebinck situate this success story in the context of markets operating as “nested markets” and “common pooled resources,” and also in the context of prioritizing “symbiosis as a core ordering principle” of food system planning — by which they mean a food system that is designed to do more than sell food for money, but is also designed to optimize other social, economic and environmental outcomes that humans need as health-promoting accompaniments to their food.

A central point they make about a “symbiotic food system” is that it is based on horizontal relations among equals — not the vertical or hierarchical relationships of a “food supply chain” dominated by large aggregators at the top. In such a system, vendors, artisan processors and others are partners divvying up the work to be done, not competitors divvying up the surplus.

markets are crowded and colorful and ooze with local culture

Understanding this helps us get some perspective on the discussion about producing sustainable food products at scale. We do not need to be obsessed with scaling up, especially to the scale, mechanization and impersonality most suited to mass production. Having a huge number of small farms and small distributors can be a very good thing, as long as the distribution and support system they need is “scaled out.”

Scaling out is where the scaling discussion needs to move — toward a deeper understanding of alternative distribution methods, some of which are modelled in Dar es Salaam.

food as the secret weapon

I think the authors miss one critical advantage enjoyed by the people of Dar es Salaam.

The people of Dar es Salaam eat food, farm ingredients that have been minimally processed. As soon as the subject of a food system is food — delivered fresh, minimally-processed or freshly-prepared direct to the customer — organizing a socially-enriching and economically mutually-supportive distribution system almost becomes a piece of cake. Food is made for what’s called a “short supply chain,” as important to food quality and sustainability as the actual physical distance between farmer and customer.

But as soon as food is an object in the food system, something to be transformed into a meal that can be eaten without much input from the “consumer,” then food is on another path — the path more travelled in the Global North. In this system, food needs preservatives and additives of various kinds to compensate for the lost vitality and taste from prolonged storage, and it needs packaging that serves as an ad for a corporation that is known by its brand name, not the first name of a person. In this system, food is delivered through a vertical supply chain.

The key to whether food fits into one system or the other, in my opinion, is in the hands of consumers who have the power to become participants in the food system by becoming food producers and preparers. Without that missing group, the horizontal system revealed in Dar es Salaam is difficult to make work.

That is why, in my view, food culture is a central issue for the local and sustainable food movement. It sets the glass ceiling that invisibly thwarts efforts to make more local and sustainable and healthy food available, and keeps that large corporations that dominate a vertical supply system in positions of dominance.

We need people-friendly food distribution methods. And we need to get cooking with our food preparation methods.

The people of Dar es Salaam have this simple message to teach us.

(The PhD thesis on which Marc’s articles are built is now available at )

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