SUSTAINABLE DIETS FOR ALL
in the informal
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SUSTAINABLE DIETS FOR ALL REFLECTIONS SERIES: STORIES OF CHANGE
Sustainable Diets for All (SD4All) is an advocacy programme designed
to improve access to healthy and sustainable diets for low-income
communities, while highlighting the important link between food
and climate. Coordinated by HIVOS and the International Institute
for Environment and Development (IIED), the programme works in
partnership with civil society organisations and citizen groups in
Bolivia, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. The programme is part
of the Citizen Agency Consortium, which is funded by the Dutch Ministry
of Foreign Affairs under its Dialogue and Dissent programme.
The SD4All reections series is a set of papers that discuss
achievements, challenges and lessons from the SD4All programme.
The series explores the legacy left by the initiative in four areas:
citizen agency, multi-actor initiatives, informal markets and capacity
development. The lessons shared are based on the expected and
unexpected results of research, lobbying and capacity development.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the SD4All themes of
production, consumption and the markets that connect them, in
particular informal markets, are more relevant than ever.
The series is aimed at advocates, researchers, policy makers, citizens
and decision makers seeking change in local and national food systems
around the world. It will be of particular interest to organisations that
bring people into policy making spaces where their lived experience of
growing, buying and selling food can shape policy.
First published: October 2020
Bill Vorley, Alejandro Guarín, Giulia Nicolini
The authors are grateful to Frank Mechielsen and Natalie Lartey
for suggestions on an earlier version, and to William Chilufya,
Silvana Paath and Immaculate Yossa for their contributions.
Editing by Frances Reynolds and layout by Judith Fisher is
Cover photo: Matooke sellers in Uganda
Credit: Bill Vorley
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1. Introduction and objectives 5
2. Informality and the food systems of the majority poor 6
2.1 What do we mean by ‘informality’? 6
2.2 The informal ‘hidden middle’ between rural and urban 6
2.3 How do informal food systems perform in comparison with the formal food economy? 8
3. Implementing an informality agenda in SD4All: approaches and outcomes 11
3.1 Zambia: market actors and their concerns 11
3.2 Indonesia: street vendors and low-income workers in Bandung 13
3.3 Bolivia: generating evidence with market vendors 15
3.4 Uganda: working with a street vendors association in Fort Portal 16
4. Lessons and recommendations for action 17
4.1 Rethink: ground sustainable diets in people’s realities 17
4.2 Recognise: planning for the informal food economy to be part of the solution 18
4.3 Support: interventions as common cause with informal food systems 18
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The concept of ‘sustainable diets’ brings together global
priorities around food and nutrition security, environmental
protection and economic affordability, and is increasingly
used to advocate for global food systems transformation.
However, while its goals are universally applicable, the
concept of sustainable diets itself has been built around
the formal food systems of industrialised countries. This
raises urgent questions about how the sustainable diets
agenda can be implemented in countries in the global South,
where the majority of people access food through the
informal economy. In this paper, we consider the function
and performance of informal food systems in achieving
sustainable diets, drawing on learnings from the Sustainable
Diets for All programme jointly run by Hivos, IIED and
partners in Bolivia, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia.
Informal food systems contribute to the food and nutrition
security of hundreds of millions of people around the world,
particularly in the global South. They are often the main or
only source of nutrient-rich foods for those on low incomes,
and are also a signicant source of livelihoods, including for
women and youth who may have few other viable options
for income generation. However, success in delivering
affordable and often nutritious food is being achieved by
informal food systems despite rather than because of policy.
Assumptions about informal markets being inefcient and
unsafe are rife, both among policy makers but also within
the international development community. Informal food
systems are therefore often misunderstood by those who
seek to ‘improve’ them, leading to a mismatch in policy,
planning and development.
This paper reviews the experiences of bringing together
conversations around informality and sustainable diets as
part of the SD4All programme. For each country, we consider
the broader context of the informal food system, and reect
on the programme’s activities and their outcomes, focusing
on the relationship between evidence, agency and advocacy.
In Zambia, evidence generated by the programme on
informal markets’ contribution to sustainable diets was
used by local partners to convene multi-stakeholder
conversations, including with government. In Indonesia,
similar evidence around the informal food system’s
performance was produced, but in this case it did not lead
to an effective advocacy agenda, in part due to a lack of
clear ownership over the data. Informal market actors
exercised considerable agency in evidence-generation
activities in Bolivia, but despite the existence of both of
these elements, advocacy did not follow on automatically.
And in Uganda, local partners used evidence about informal
street food vendors to lobby for greater recognition by
the government, and foster collective agency through the
development of a workers’ association. However, questions
around the locus of informal food actors’ agency mean the
long-term success of advocacy activities is uncertain.
Finally, the paper offers some recommendations for donors,
policymakers, NGOs and CSOs on how to work with informal
food systems to achieve sustainable diets for all. We
argue that a transition to sustainable diets that works for
people and planet should build on rather than criminalise
or replace functioning informal food systems. First, we
call for international organisations to rethink the framing
of sustainable diets beyond the denitions and tools of
formal food systems, such as certication and labelling, to
one which is adaptable to local realities, and inclusive of
informal food systems. Second, we recommend that decision
makers at all levels consider informal food systems and their
actors as allies, not enemies, for achieving sustainable diets,
through recognising what they are already achieving for
sustainable diets, and building on their strengths. Finally,
we call for greater support for informal economy actors,
but suggest that donors need to rst understand the needs
and priorities of those they aim to help, while CSOs should
aim to play a supporting, rather than a leading role, when
generating evidence with and for informal food actors.
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Universal access to healthy, diverse, nutritious and safe
food, that is produced in an environmentally sustainable
way, has become an important global ambition. The concept
of ‘sustainable diets’ has been developed to describe
food systems that support both human and planetary
health. Sustainable diets are “protective and respectful
of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable,
accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally
adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural
and human resources” (FAO and Biodiversity, 2010). The
transformation of food systems to sustainable systems is
enshrined in the second UN Sustainable Development Goal,
and in a number of landmark publications such as the Food
and Land Use Coalition’s global report (FOLU, 2019).
The EAT-Lancet commission has recently raised concern
about the environmental and health effects of a diet that
is heavy in meat, animal-derived proteins, fats, rened
carbohydrates and processed food, and low in fresh fruits
and vegetables (Willett et al., 2019). Crucially, the concept
of sustainable diets demands profound changes to the
current dominance of large-scale agro-industrial production,
processing and marketing within the global food system. The
Covid-19 crisis has exposed some of the vulnerabilities of
this system and made the need for changes starker.
The goal of sustainable diets has global relevance and
applicability, but the concept has largely been constructed
around the formal food systems of industrialised countries.
Implementing sustainable diets in the food systems of
low-income countries is complicated by the fact that much
of the food system operates within the informal economy.
This raises big questions about how the concept relates
to the realities and priorities of low-income citizens, and
about the leverage points that are available to achieve
change. For example, the planet- and people-friendly diet
proposed by the EAT-Lancet commission has been shown
to be unaffordable for most of the world’s poor consumers
(Hirvonen et al., 2020). Moreover, the interventions that
can work in a formal food system such as tax incentives,
standards and third-party certication, and corporate
social responsibility (CSR) are likely to be of little use in an
These questions of delivering sustainable diets in an informal
world have challenged the Sustainable Diets for All (SD4All)
programme, which is managed by Hivos, IIED and national
partners (see box). In this paper we describe that challenge:
how informality distinguishes the food systems of the poor,
and the implications for achieving sustainable diets for low-
income citizens. First, we draw from the global literature
to uncover how the informal food economy functions,
assess its strengths and weaknesses, and its performance
including across the dimensions of sustainable diets —
nutrition, safety, and sustainability. We then turn to the
SD4All programme activities to discuss how informality was
approached in SD4All country programmes, and with what
outcomes, drawing on experiences and conversations with
Hivos and partners.
We end the paper with the following key lessons and
recommendations: First, we must rethink the notion of
sustainable diets so that it is grounded in the realities of
low-income consumers in the global South and captures
the importance of the informal food sector as a source
of livelihoods and affordable nutrition. Second, we call
on governments and donors to reconsider the informal
food economy as an ally, not an obstacle, in achieving
sustainable diets in the global South. Finally, we should
support actors in the informal food economy — from
producers to traders and consumers — being respectful
of their needs and priorities, and creating common cause
with them to change (when needed) and to protect (when
relevant) their food system.
About the Sustainable Diets for All (SD4All)
SD4All is an advocacy programme which aimed to make
more sustainable, diverse, healthy and nutritious food
available to low-income citizens in Bolivia, Zambia,
Uganda, Indonesia and Kenya. The programme set out
to do this by strengthening the capacity of civil society
organisations (CSOs) to inuence governments, market
actors and international organisations in pursuit of
sustainable diets. SD4All was jointly run by Hivos, IIED
and local partners, and is one of four programmes
being implemented as part of the Dutch government’s
Dialogue and Dissent initiative.
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2. INFORMALITY AND
THE FOOD SYSTEMS
OF THE MAJORITY POOR
In this section we unpack the context and concepts of
informality as found in the published literature. We assess
informal food systems against the tenets of sustainable diets
including nutrition, safety, sustainability and resilience, and
discuss some of the key challenges faced by informal actors,
including their organisation. It is important to note from the
outset that informal food systems are less well understood
than the food systems that supply higher income consumers.
This is because a) the modernisation paradigm dominates
policy and public debate; b) they are harder to study and to
collect data on because they are fragmented and atomised,
sometimes operate in the shadows, and are geographically
dispersed; and c) their main constituents (the poor) are
less powerful, have less of a voice, and less inuence over
setting research and policy agendas.
2.1 What do we mean by ‘informality’?
The concept of informality has evolved since Keith Hart and
the International Labour Organization (ILO) applied the term
to an unregulated entrepreneurial sector of cities in the
global South in the early 1970s (Hart, 1973; ILO, 2013). The
‘informal sector’ they described was primarily urban and
comprised a workforce of poor working women and men who
were not recognised, recorded, protected or regulated by
By the 1990s it had become clear that informality was not
a distinct or temporary economic sector, but a structural
feature of the whole economy, and the economic reality of
most low-income citizens in the global South (Chen, 2007;
The ILO recognised the limits of a sectoral denition, and
in 2002 published a description of the ‘informal economy’
(ILO, 2013), with a set of criteria to aid international
comparability. By these measures, informal employment
represents from around 50% to up to 80% of non-agricultural
employment in developing countries and 60% of the
world’s working population. If agriculture is included, the
informal economy is estimated to provide 85−90% of all
employment in the West African region (Hitimana et al.,
2011) and account for around two-thirds of GDP across
sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) (Charmes, 2012), and a similar
proportion in Bolivia and Peru (Schneider et al., 2010).
However, these numbers can mask the fact that there are
shades of informality and blurred boundaries between the
informal and formal economy, and multiple interactions
Our understanding of informality has continued to evolve.
A growing number of researchers look at informality beyond
employment, to more broadly describe practices used by
citizens to negotiate life and survival, and get things done
(Roy, 2005; Watson, 2009; Neuwirth, 2011; Kamete, 2013;
Ledeneva, 2018). By applying an ‘informal logic’, people
can meet basic needs that might otherwise not be met if
they stick to the rules of the formal economy. Some of those
practices and activities fall into the category of ‘weapons
of the weak’: small acts of non-cooperation, resistance and
retaliation by disenfranchised people (Scott, 1985). Others
are more straightforward evasions of norms and regulations.
In this paper we will use the terms ‘informal food economy’
and ‘informal food systems’ to refer to domestic and
regional markets that serve and employ low-income citizens.
2.2 The informal ‘hidden middle’ between rural
The emergence of a large informal food economy is
associated especially with the urban transition. The informal
food economy has a pivotal role in food and nutrition
security for the majority poor in much of the global
South through linking rural with urban, and production
Most of the analysis and commentary on the informal
economy focuses on the urban end of this story. But it is
in the value chains that link rural areas to growing urban
centres where there is dynamic growth in actors interacting
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according to logics of informality (Roy, 2005; OECD/SWAC,
2012). The geographic locations that produce food for a
particular city, called urban ‘foodsheds’, can reach across
long distances and sometimes across borders. They can
operate at scale to meet growing demand in domestic
wholesale and retail sectors with which they are closely
connected (Haggblade et al., 2012; Wegerif and Wiskerke,
2017). This is achieved with little or no state support or
coordination and without large corporate structures (Wegerif
and Wiskerke, 2017).
Smallholder farming households’ link to the market will
often be informal traders, who offer farmers a number of
comparative advantages. They pay cash and buy produce
of all qualities, which for cash-strapped households could
mean being able to keep food on the table and children
in school (Vorley et al., 2015). The next step in the chain
could be trading hubs, which are often in emerging urban
centres within agricultural regions and are key to the
organisation of domestic food markets (World Bank, 2009;
Allen et al., 2011; Floquet, 2012). They are part of the
so-called ‘hidden middle’ of food systems which assemble,
store, exchange, distribute and sometimes process food
and which provide around a quarter of rural employment in
Africa and lower-income Asia (IFPRI, 2020). These hubs have
aided the reorientation of markets in SSA towards domestic
and regional provision, and away from exports (Allen
and Heinrigs, 2016). Trading hubs can contribute to the
diversication of urban diets and improved nutrition, as has
been the case in the cowpea trade from Sahelian countries
like Burkina Faso and Mali to coastal cities such as Accra in
Ghana and Cotonou in Togo (Hollinger and Staatz, 2015).
Wholesale markets, where food is brought in from rural
areas and re-sold for retail, are the next key link between
the rural and urban economies. These markets operate along
a spectrum of informalities, from ‘wet’ markets selling
perishable foods such as fresh meat, fruit and vegetables
(Mwango et al., 2019), which may be recognised or even
owned by the municipality, to the large outdoor wholesale
markets like Makola in Accra, which, despite their position
in the unregistered informal economy, “are a collective
force to be reckoned with” (den Broeder, 2018). Informality
in the midstream/wholesale market may persist even when
the retail end is ‘modern’. In fact, supply chains may move
between informal and formal economies several times
between production and consumption.
At the retail end, the ’supermarket revolution’ has yet to
reshape the food systems of the poor, especially in sub-
Saharan Africa, and there is little suggestion that other retail
forms are on their way out (Crush and Frayne 2011; Skinner
2016), because of their compatibility with the consumption
strategies of the poorest households. Small-scale street
traders of fresh and prepared foods may be the bane of
Lunch in La Paz, Bolivia (Mauricio Panozo/Hivos)
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municipal authorities, but nevertheless full a crucial role in
urban food security, as we discuss in the next section.
2.3 How do informal food systems perform in
comparison with the formal food economy?
The informal food economy has a widespread reputation
for inefcient chain operations and for trading in unsafe
and unhealthy food. Indeed, many development projects
start from this premise of poor performance when they set
out to upgrade or transform food systems (Vorley, 2020).
The closure of informal food markets at the start of the
Covid-19 crisis also exposed a clear bias against informality
on the grounds of health and safety, given that open-air food
markets are thought to pose a lower risk of person-to-person
transmission (FAO 2020).
Evidence from the literature across the global South, echoed
in the experiences of the SD4All programme (Section 3),
suggests that these assumptions are often just that. If we
want sustainable diets to be for all — that is, not a luxury
of the rich but something affordable and accessible for the
poor — then it is important to understand how these mostly
informal food systems are delivering on sustainability and
nutrition, and how they could do better.
Food and nutrition security
Food and nutrition security (FNS) is achieved when all
individuals have reliable access to sufcient quantities of
affordable, nutritious food to lead a healthy life. If we look
at the four elements of FNS — accessibility, affordability,
nutrition and health — there are indications in the literature
that informal food systems do not always live up to their
The accessibility and affordability of informally traded
food can be seen in the widespread reliance of low-income
households on informal retail outlets in the global South.
An important comparative survey of over 6,000 households
in low-income neighbourhoods of 11 southern African cities
found that 70% of households regularly purchased their
foods from the informal food economy (Frayne et al., 2010;
Crush and Frayne, 2014). Reliance on informal food systems
may increase rapidly in times of economic crisis (Tawodzera
et al., 2016).
Traditional and informal outlets are more convenient for the
poorest consumers. Small shops, street sellers, and informal
markets are often closer to low-income housing (Resnick,
2017), and vendors may sell on credit, which is important
for people on irregular incomes (Peyton et al., 2015;
Resnick, 2017; Riley et al., 2018). The practice of selling
food in small quantities also increases the affordability
of food for low-income consumers with limited storage
and no refrigeration. Cooking facilities may also be very
limited, so prepared foods from street vendors are vital
for achieving food security. Available evidence on prices is
mixed, but overall it seems that traditional outlets tend to
sell cheaper fresh food, while processed goods are cheaper
in supermarkets (eg Skinner 2016).
Prepared food sold via the informal sector (‘street food’)
plays an increasingly important role in urban diets, where
space, time, cash limitations and absence of refrigeration
can constrain food preparation at home. Daily purchasing
is necessitated by unpredictable daily income and a lack of
accumulated funds. There is evidence from SSA, Haiti, India
and Trinidad that consumption of prepared foods outside
the home may be rising (Steyn et al., 2013). More than half
of Nairobi’s two million slum dwellers buy ready-made food
rather than cooking in their homes (Tacoli, 2016).
The contribution of informal food systems to nutrition
outcomes is less clear. Food sourced from informal street
vendors contributes signicantly to the energy and protein
intake of people in developing countries (Steyn et al., 2013).
Informal food markets are often the main way in which
poor people obtain protein-rich foods, including meat,
milk, eggs and sh (Grace et al., 2014) and fresh vegetables
(eg Ahmed et al., 2015). However, not all food accessible
through the informal sector is healthy. Many informal
retailers sell industrially processed food and drinks, and
street-cooked food ranges from healthy convenience snacks
to energy-dense processed foods and fast foods (Boatemaa
et al., 2018). Likewise, informal channels also bring highly
processed foods into rural areas and drive rapid changes in
consumption that mirror urban areas (FAO, 2017; Reardon et
al., 2014). Low-income people may be largely aware of what
comprises healthy food and the importance of fresh foods,
but price is a critical factor in not applying that knowledge
(eg Boatemaa et al., 2018).
Local authorities and governments tend to perceive informal
food markets as unhygienic and unhealthy. However, studies
on the microbiological quality of street foods show a
mixed picture of the safety of informally marketed street
foods, with some studies showing high levels of bacterial
contamination (eg Addo et al., 2010) and pesticide residues
(eg Kapeleka et al., 2020) and others showing low or
acceptable bacterial counts (Skinner, 2016; Grace at al.,
2014). Many risks are managed by traders and retailers (eg
Dittrich, 2017), as well as by consumers through cooking.
Moreover, risks are often associated with the environment
in which food is sold rather than the food itself, including
a lack of public provision of clean water and waste
management (Etzold et al., 2013). Crucially, informal food
markets have often been found to present no greater risks
than those found in the formal market (Grace et al., 2014).
Employment, inclusion, and gender
Employment in the informal food economy is an important
source of livelihoods and income (and hence food security),
but evidence of its size and contribution is lacking (Skinner
2016). Globally, it is estimated that 93.6% of employment
in agriculture is informal (ILO, 2018). Informal street food
vending is one of the most signicant sources of employment
within the food system, employing more than 60,000 people
in Ghana and 9,000 in Harare, Zimbabwe (Roesel & Grace
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2015). And while entry barriers are often low, often this
translates into poor quality of employment and pay.
It is the inclusive nature of the informal food economy,
namely its low barriers to entry, that explains its resilience,
and its importance as a target of SD4All. Low income
consumers — including the billion global citizens living in
informal slum settlements — can nd staples, fresh food,
animal products, processed or prepared food.
The informal food economy is also an important source
of livelihoods for women and youth, who have been be
excluded from formal employment (WOW, 2019). When
agricultural value chains formalise, women’s labour and
contributions — particularly in processing — are frequently
un- or under-compensated relative to men’s (FAO, IFAD &
ILO, 2010). This is also due to the often ‘hidden’ nature
of women’s work, especially that which takes place in
the home rather than in public spaces. Women are over-
represented in other parts of the informal food economy.
For example, they account for 80% of street food vendors
in Harare, Zimbabwe (Roesel and Grace 2015), and up to
70% and 42% of informal cross-border trade in agricultural
goods in Liberia and Cameroon respectively (Koroma et al.,
2017). Youth also benet from low barriers to entry into the
informal food economy, though based on a recent survey of
two Nigerian secondary cities, Resnick et al. (2018) call for
nuance; traders between 18 and 24 years of age comprised
less than 10% of food traders compared to a third between
25 and 34 years of age.
Efciency and waste
Traditional and informal trading networks that link rural
areas with urban centres are often labelled as inefcient or
predatory. But they are very efcient at aligning the needs
of small-scale farmers with outlets to their products, and
the demands of low-income consumers with affordability.
Traders perform a critical role by collecting products from
distant, poorly connected farmland and providing credit
and inputs for farmers. The trading costs in this ‘hidden
middle’ also appear to be shrinking. Better infrastructure
has reduced transport costs, the growing number of traders
has increased competition, and ownership of mobile phones
has improved market coordination. In rare empirical studies
of post-harvest losses along informal chains, wastage
appears to have been wildly overstated (Minten et al., 2016;
Minten et al., 2020). However, the absence of refrigeration
in informal retail outlets can lead to increased spoilage,
particularly among street vendors selling perishable foods
(Battersby et al., 2016).
Lusaka City market (Salim Dawood/Hivos)
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Environmental protection and sustainability
The environmental impact of informal food systems is not
well documented, and existing evidence presents a mixed
picture. Much informally traded food originating from
smallholders has been produced with few external inputs.
But this does not always mean it has been produced through
sustainable practices in terms of management of soils and
nutrients, watersheds, or biodiversity. Informal networks do
not carry demands for sustainable production up the chain
to farmers. This may be changing, since urbanisation and
informal market linkages are providing economic incentives
for smallholders to invest in their farms, incentives which
until recently have been absent from much of sub-Saharan
Africa (Reardon et al., 2014).
The relative exibility of informal food systems when
compared to those of formal markets may enhance their
resilience to crises caused by climate change, political
instability or pandemics, insofar as they are decentralised
and comprised of millions of small-scale actors, and able to
adapt more quickly. Bohle et al. (2009) and Keck and Etzold
(2013) describe how wholesale traders, with their diverse
supply networks, and street vendors, with their buffering
capacity, managed to keep the megacity of Dhaka in
Bangladesh fed during the food crisis of 2007−8, despite the
government’s eviction campaigns against food hawkers and
without acknowledgement or support from the state. There
is also some evidence that informal food systems bounce
back after disease outbreaks, as was the case with Ebola in
West Africa (Alpha and Figuié, 2016), but overall evidence
of adaptive capacities is limited, and systematic comparison
with other systems is lacking.
Public health outbreaks in Africa have often been followed
by government crackdowns on informal food markets, as
happened following the cholera outbreak in Lusaka, Zambia
in 2018 (Resnick, 2020). Evidence is emerging of the effects
of and responses to Covid-19; for example, in Kenya there
have been reports of authorities using the virus as a cover
for evicting traders from markets (Oudia, 2020). The partial
or complete closure of open-air food and livestock markets
has thrown millions of informal actors into further precarity,
with knock-on effects on the food security of low-income
groups (WFP 2020a,b). However, there is also evidence of
informal supply chains adapting to restrictions on travel and
trade by linking consumers directly with producers, from
Korea to East Africa (FAO, 2020a,b; Meeme, 2020).
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3. IMPLEMENTING AN
IN SD4ALL: APPROACHES
Section 2 presented evidence to show that across much of
the global South, the informal food economy is doing the
heavy lifting on livelihoods and food and nutrition security
for low-income citizens. Despite policy neglect and widely
held assumptions the informal food economy can provide the
building blocks for delivering sustainable diets.
In Sustainable Diets for All, the ‘for all’ framing put low-
income consumers at the centre of the programme from
the start. We realised that the way in which sustainable
diets are achieved may be different within the food systems
that serve the poor. The classic routes of inuencing and
sensitising conscious consumers, or promoting certied
‘sustainable’ foods, would not achieve the SD4All objective
of making more sustainable, diverse, healthy and nutritious
food available to low-income citizens, when those citizens
rely on the informal food economy. We saw that successful
advocacy for sustainable diets will require agency of people
within the informal food economy, emphasising the capacity
of people to act on their own priorities and to inuence
decisions that shape their food systems. And it will require
evidence to challenge the assumptions and prejudice
that deter policymakers from engaging with the informal
Informality was not initially emphasised by civil society
partners selected for the SD4All programme in 2016. The
rst workplans, as well as the theories of change, reected
the partners’ diverse range of interests and experience.
Midway through the programme the focus on informality
increased. The programme also adopted citizen agency as
a framing principle (Vorley et al., 2020). Agreement was
reached with four countries for at least one piece of work
with an explicit ‘citizen agency’ way of working, preferably
in the informal food economy. An advocacy toolkit (de Toma,
2018) and country workshops supported implementation
of these initiatives. We sought to identify ‘hotspots’ of
dynamism in civil society and work with informal actors
and their allies, helping them develop capacity to generate
evidence and advocate for change in their food systems.
In this section we reect on our experience with informal
food systems in the four countries using the agency−
evidence−advocacy framework. For each country, we provide
the context within which informality exists, a brief summary
of the programme’s approach and activities, a reection
on the contribution of informality to sustainable diets, and
a discussion of the main advocacy and other outcomes of
3.1 Zambia: market actors and their concerns
The informal sector employs nine out of ten Zambians
(CSO, 2015), and within it food commercialisation is one
of the biggest sources of jobs and livelihoods (Skinner,
2019). Informal food markets are the main outlets for the
commercialisation of food in the country, and crucial access
points for food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, for
the urban poor (Mulenga, 2013). In research commissioned
by SD4All on informal food vendors, women accounted for
almost 90% of vendors in the capital Lusaka and more than
60% of vendors in Kitwe, the second largest city (Mwango
et al., 2019).
In view of the vast size of Zambia’s informal sector, the
government’s priority has been to promote formalisation
as a way to raise labour standards, improve efciency, and
increase government revenue. This policy stance has led to
IIED + hIvosrEflEctIons sErIEs 12
a confrontational approach towards the predominant type
of economic activity: informal actors such as street vendors
are often subject to harassment and persecution, and
are sidelined from policy debates. Moreover, even though
employment generation in the informal sector dwarfs that in
the formal sector (both private and public), the government
has little interest and few tools to deal with the informal
part of the economy.
The engagement of SD4All with informal food markets in
Zambia started with evidence generation. Our partner,
the Centre for Trade, Policy and Development (CTPD),
identied a lack of current information about the legal
and policy situation of informal markets, as well as
limited knowledge about marketeers and consumers. With
support from CTPD and the Alliance for Zambian Informal
Economy Associations (AZIEA), a team of researchers
surveyed vendors and consumers in Lusaka and Kitwe, and
interviewed government ofcials at municipal and national
levels. Due to the confrontational relationship between
authorities and street vendors, the process of evidence
gathering was politicised, sometimes leading to harassment
of researchers themselves.
The evidence generated in Zambia provided important
insights about the contribution of informal markets to
sustainable diets. The household surveys conrmed that
informal markets are the key sources of fresh fruits and
vegetables and meat for all consumers, but especially those
in low-income neighbourhoods. Consumers see these outlets
as affordable, convenient and safe. Our work highlights
the fact that, while informal markets don’t exclusively sell
healthy food, for many people they are the only source of it.
The study also showed that informal markets offer important
livelihood opportunities, particularly for women, young
people and those with less formal education. The survey
showed that food moves swiftly through the market, with
most vendors provisioning their businesses daily. This may
account for the low rates of reported food-related health
problems, and low rates of spoilage, even despite the stated
lack of storage and refrigeration facilities.
Initially the evidence generation didn’t have a clear
advocacy objective. But the lobbying potential of the data
quickly became apparent, and attracted the interest of
AZIEA, market actors and even government ofcials. Hivos
and local partners, including the Consumer Unity and Trust
Society (CUTS), later used this data to engage with the
local governments of Kitwe and Lusaka to put the issue of
informality on the table.
Women market sellers, Lusaka, Zambia (Salim Dawood/Hivos)
IIED + hIvosrEflEctIons sErIEs 13
Moving from evidence generation to advocacy presented
two challenges. First, the study conrmed that informal
markets are not part of the government discourse on food
security or sustainability, at least at the national level.
While government ofcials acknowledged the size and
signicance of informal food markets in the country, they
generally fell back to formalisation, including business
registration and paying taxes, as their default position. But
there were promising openings with the local governments.
Representatives of the governments of Lusaka and Kitwe
attended the launch of the report, and spoke of the informal
food market and its actors as allies rather than foes. The
newly available evidence and engagement with informal
sector actors lent support to establishing food security
councils — multi-stakeholder platforms for food governance
— in Lusaka and Kitwe. Food vendors, under AZIEA in Kitwe
and with support from CUTS in Lusaka, are now actively
involved in the councils.
The second challenge was that the work started out as a
factnding mission without a specic policy ask. It was a
rather open-ended process which the partners, especially
AZIEA, used to support several ongoing efforts, including
demands for better storage facilities at the markets and
campaigning against corruption in market governance.
The evidence was used by partners including AZIEA to
convene a range of discussions with the government, other
organisations, and even their own membership.
The move from evidence to advocacy also put the issue
of agency into focus. The study was initially proposed and
designed by the programme; in other words, the initiative
was external to the informal market actors. Engaging
with AZIEA at the early stages made it possible to involve
vendors, but as the study developed, AZIEA became more
active in steering the process, facilitating several discussions
to validate the ndings, and leading the development
of an agenda for engaging with local government. In the
agency−evidence−advocacy model that we described above,
evidence generation kicked things off, and agency and
advocacy came a bit later. The survey revealed a level of
distrust by vendors of traders’ organisations, which they
perceive to be overly politicised. However, we observed
many examples of collective action, and the willingness to
participate through AZIEA suggests that marketeers are an
active group with strong potential for collective agency.
Through our partners AZIEA, CTPD and CUTS we worked
mostly with the more formal end of informal vending:
vendors who have access to a market stall and pay
government fees to operate. Their advocacy agenda focused
on infrastructure improvements and ghting corruption.
But if we had worked with street vendors, who are most
vulnerable to harassment and persecution, the agenda might
have centred on recognition and basic rights.
3.2 Indonesia: street vendors and low-income
workers in Bandung
As in many rapidly growing cities, the role of street vendors,
food stallholders and other informal food providers in
Bandung — Indonesia’s fourth most populous city — is
contested. The number of street vendors grew rapidly after
the economic crisis of the late 1990s — a trend that was not
reversed even as the economy recovered. Policies to deal
with the ‘street vendor problem’ often fail to recognise the
social and economic value of these informal food providers.
Attempts to regulate informal food providers are politically
sensitive in Indonesia and across Southeast Asia. Research
that sheds light on the food system of the working poor can
show city authorities the real value of informal trading.
Policies can then be adjusted accordingly.
Ofcial government policy towards street vending has swung
between repression and permissiveness. The initial approach
in 2005 focused squarely on disincentives, including the
banning of street vendors from seven city locations, and of
setting up a stall and selling on a footway, park or green
space. The policy had little success and most of the vendors
quickly returned to the street.
More recently, policy has become more nuanced. City
regulations in 2011 recognised the sector and supported its
formalisation through annual permits and relocation into
designated vendor centres. Zoning still restricts vendors
from operating on certain streets, with nes for both
vendors and their customers if caught outing the law in
these ‘red zones’. A Street Vendor Forum at sub-district
level has the objective of reconciling the differing interests
of street vendors, government and the community. Street
food has been incorporated into the city’s promotion of
But the push to formalise the sector is far from complete,
and the cat and mouse relationship between authorities and
vendors continues. City ofcials attempt to sweep vendors
from roads and pavements but cleared areas are soon
reoccupied. These ongoing tensions are stirred up by regular
reports in the press about congestion and litter.
A study led by a team from Bandung’s Padjadjaran
University, in collaboration with IIED and Hivos as part of
SD4All, raised some important questions about whether
policymakers have overlooked the central role that street
food plays in the food security of low-income workers, who
underpin the city’s economy. An exploratory survey found
two quite distinct categories of street food consumers. The
rst is the ‘recreational’ consumers. They purchase food
from street vendors once or twice a week and spend quite
a large amount per visit. The second is the ‘subsistence’
consumers, which includes the working poor. They rely on
vendors and use them two to three times per day, spending
IIED + hIvosrEflEctIons sErIEs 14
less than a dollar per visit. Street food comprises 50–80% of
total food intake.
The research team was able to lift the lid on this second
group through a study conducted with 300 women textile
factory workers in the Gempol Sari area close to the large
Kahatex textile factory at the western edge of Bandung.
Community members mapped the food vendors in the area
around the factory and the lodgings, and the types of food
available. The women themselves gathered the data using
‘food diaries’, recording the type and source of each of
their meals. The young workers are mainly migrants from
outside Bandung and live in lodgings near the factory. With
limited cooking facilities and low wages, they rely heavily on
prepared street food.
Between shifts, the street and pavements in front of the
Kahatex factory are crowded with vendors and workers. In
2012, part of the road close to the factory was designated as
a red zone, where street vending is prohibited at all hours,
but the regulation is yet to be enforced. The study showed
that xed food stalls (warung) were the most important food
source for the women factory workers. Mobile carts were
more dominant sources in the morning and evening. The
food is nutritious and affordable; on average, employees
could buy a main meal for around US$0.50. Running the data
through an FAO tool assessing women’s dietary diversity
showed that the informal food system was providing these
factory workers with a diverse as well as affordable diet
(Natawidjaja et al., 2019).
While the city has privileged street food as a tourist
attraction, the evidence generated by SD4All shows that
street vendors are strategically important for the food and
nutrition security of the working poor. However, despite its
direct relevance to planning and policy debates in Bandung,
the evidence we produced has not generated a concrete
advocacy agenda. There are several reasons for this: the
research was carried out before the ofcial start of SD4All;
the issue of street food vending was not a core concern
of the civil society partners ultimately selected for the
programme; the Padjadjaran University team did not have
time and resources to undertake the critical steps of feeding
back the results to the workers and vendors, and involving
them in interpretation and advocacy; and nally, changes
in Bandung’s municipal government meant that the window
of opportunity for inuencing the city’s planning policies
had been closed. Supporting the capacity development of
the vendors and workers could have facilitated ownership
and a meaningful uptake of the research results. In sum,
the Indonesia case shows that evidence without agency is
unlikely to result in effective advocacy.
Street vendors in a ‘red zone’, Bandung Indonesia (Bill Vorley)
IIED + hIvosrEflEctIons sErIEs 15
3.3 Bolivia: generating evidence with
Bolivia has urbanised rapidly in the last three decades and,
while still one of the poorest countries in Latin America,
has seen its income increase substantially over the last 20
years. These changes have been accompanied by dietary
shifts. Traditional staples have been slowly replaced
by convenience food. More and more people are eating
prepared food on the streets. Food vendors therefore play
a signicant role in citizen health. Despite these changes,
tradition still plays a crucial role in the food system. Food
trade, in particular, is still overwhelmingly organised around
traditional networks and markets. In La Paz, for example,
traditional markets — rather than supermarkets or modern
supply chains — bring food from the rural hinterland to
urban consumers through a network of wholesale and
In addition to fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, and processed
goods, most of the retail markets have stalls selling cooked
food. For many low-income workers, the food offered here
is an affordable alternative to the ubiquitous fast food
outlets that have cropped up all over the city. In addition to
providing affordable and nutritious food, these market stalls
are important repositories of traditional Bolivian gastronomy
and ingredients. Most of these businesses combine some
formal and informal traits: they have to pay licence fees to
the government to operate their stalls, but labour is family-
rather than contract-based, transactions are in cash, and
compliance with ofcial sanitary standards is patchy.
The government’s stance with regard to informality is mixed.
On the one hand, informal and traditional market actors
had much greater recognition and political clout under
the Morales government (of 2006–19). On the other hand,
ofcial policy continues to favour formal enterprises for job
creation and income generation. The drive to get businesses
to register formally has been strongly opposed by most in
the informal sector.
The approach of SD4All in Bolivia was to listen to the voices
of market cooks — most of whom are women and typically
under the radar of policy discussions and the public eye. The
idea was to generate evidence with and for the women cooks
in a process largely guided by their priorities and concerns.
In 2018 Hivos and SD4All partner MIGA (Movimiento de
Integración Gastronómico Boliviano) started the lengthy
process of engaging with women cooks in two of La Paz’s
markets around the theme of improved diets and culinary
heritage. A major challenge was the initial reluctance of the
women to engage with the team, likely due to distrust of the
establishment and those outside their circle. Communicating
with and through the women’s elected leaders (Maestras)
was an essential part of developing mutual trust.
Initial discussions suggested that the top concern for the
women was less about diets and more about the increasing
competition from food businesses selling fast foods outside
the market. The cooks wanted to know more about their
customers and their preferences with a view to improving
their businesses. The SD4All team worked with the cooks to
design a customer survey, which was implemented by the
cooks themselves. The team then facilitated a number of
workshops to discuss the ndings and how to use them.
The evidence generated through engagement with the cooks
in La Paz provides two rather different insights about the
contribution of these informal actors to sustainable diets.
First, customers conrmed that the lunches sold in market
stalls are varied, nutritious and more reasonably priced than
nearby fast food outlets. At the same time, the businesses
do face an existential threat from nearby competition,
and cannot easily adapt, because they can’t reduce their
The approach taken by SD4All in Bolivia has a strong
emphasis on agency. As it was developed after the work in
Zambia and Indonesia described above, we were able to
learn from earlier experiences, and explicitly encouraged
the project to be driven by the priorities and concerns of the
market actors. We were largely successful at producing good
evidence, coupled with strong agency and ownership; but
the path to advocacy was more difcult than expected. As
business owners, the women cooks were rst and foremost
concerned with running their stalls. Their interest in
engaging with the SD4All team was not the advancement of
a policy agenda, but rather to gather intelligence on their
customers to protect their place in the market.
Some of the emerging evidence, such as customer
suggestions, were useful for immediate action. But others,
such as the improvement of market infrastructure, required
a level of engagement with the government that the cooks
were mostly uninterested in or unwilling to pursue. The
results from research have therefore not translated into
specic demands for action or change.
The Bolivia case suggests that agency and evidence by
themselves do not guarantee the development of an
advocacy agenda. This outcome was unexpected — but
should it have been? If people have the willingness and
ability to act (agency), and they are armed with information
they have gathered (evidence), advocacy directed at public
policy is only one of the possible ways forward. And in some
cases, where collective action is difcult, or when the cost
of social mobilisation seems too high relative to the benets,
it is unsurprising that advocacy is not the obvious choice.
IIED + hIvosrEflEctIons sErIEs 16
3.4 Uganda: working with a street vendors
association in Fort Portal
Kabarole District in western Uganda is an important
agricultural region. At its centre is Fort Portal, a small but
rapidly growing city and regional trading hub, connecting
farmers to other parts of Uganda and neighbouring countries
including South Sudan. Like other expanding cities, Fort
Portal faces the challenge of meeting the food and nutrition
needs of its growing population. Paradoxically, amid the
increased agricultural production, the city has seen a rise in
food insecurity and malnutrition.
In this context, informal street food vendors provide
crucial access to food to low-income consumers, many of
whom cannot afford fuel, have no time for cooking, or lack
storage or cooking facilities. Vending of prepared food,
which is a recent phenomenon in the country, also provides
livelihoods for low-income residents, particularly women.
In a 2020 study of food vendors in Fort Portal by Kabarole
Research and Resource Centre (KRC), a CSO partner of
SD4All, to understand the impacts of Covid-19, the majority
of respondents were women, many of them single mothers
(Businge and Mohammed, 2020). Despite its role in feeding
some of the most vulnerable communities, street food
vending faces various challenges: some perceive the food to
be unhealthy and unsafe; vendors are poorly organised; and
they are often harassed by authorities because, according to
the law, they occupy public space illegally.
In 2015, before SD4All started, KRC partnered with Hivos and
IIED to carry out a study to better understand the dynamics
and challenges of street food vending in Fort Portal.
Qualitative interviews with vendors and consumers were
used to understand the different types of vendors and the
food they offered, and the buying patterns and preferences
of their customers.
Under the SD4All programme, the Uganda Food Change Lab
(Boerwinkel et al., 2018) was set up in 2014 to promote
dialogue and advocacy for a better food system in Fort
Portal municipality and its hinterland, particularly Kabarole,
Bunyangabu and Kyenjojo districts. It brought together
street vendors, civil society, and local authorities. As part
of the Lab, KRC continued to work closely with a group of
street vendors, providing support for the development of
a food vendors’ association. In addition, KRC facilitated
a ‘coalition of the willing’ to raise awareness and jointly
advocate for a sustainable food system in Kabarole district.
The coalition convenes on a regular basis for meetings and
special events, and is involved in a weekly radio programme.
The initial research showed that street vendors sell a
variety of food. While some of it was fast food, such as fried
snacks or chapatis, which was high in energy but relatively
low in nutritional quality, there were also more nutritious
traditional foods, like bean stews and matooke (Vorley and
Boerwinkel, 2016). The healthier meals tended to be offered
exclusively by women. Consumers were especially driven
by price and accessibility. The study found that some of the
healthier, traditional meals were in fact cheaper than the
fried and salty snacks, suggesting that street food can be an
important source of affordable nutrition for the urban poor.
The evidence generation that preceded SD4All, and KRC’s
continued engagement with street vendors as part of
the Food Change Lab resulted in a number of advocacy
and policy outcomes. A street vendors’ association was
formed and registered with the municipality, with the
association’s chairperson taking a seat on the District
Nutrition Coordination Committee. Around three quarters
of the vendors in town are part of the association. As a
result of advocacy and lobbying efforts by street vendors,
with support from KRC and SD4All, the municipality fullled
its commitment to install more street lighting and water
points in parts of the city where street vendors work. The
Fort Portal municipality also designated several sites for
food vending, providing infrastructure and services as part
of a public−private partnership. Finally, street food vending
was recognised for its role in the nutrition security of low-
income groups, and was included in a 2019 Production and
Environment Ordinance. At the national level, MPs also
committed to amending the 1935 Public Health Act that
outlaws street food vending. However, KRC’s capacity to
effectively follow up on these commitments was impeded
by the organisation’s physical distance from national
policymakers in Kampala, as well as the fact that the MP
who had committed to championing the amendments in
Parliament lost his seat.
The work with food vendors in Fort Portal was clearly driven
by KRC, which invested in facilitation, evidence generation
and coordination. The municipal government also enabled
the positive outcomes, because it rst encouraged the
formation of the street vendors’ association and was also
willing to enact changes. Evidence was an important input
to the process, and the advocacy resulted in signicant
outcomes. But what about agency? It is unclear how much
of the drive to engage around evidence and advocacy came
from the vendors themselves. KRC has long-standing ties
to the community, and its credibility and legitimacy surely
played an important role in bringing the vendors on board.
It is possible that without KRC’s support and efforts none of
this would have happened. This poses an interesting question
about the sustainability of the results: how will the vendors’
association (and the coalition of the willing) fare beyond
KRC and local political change? Here the issue of agency, and
particularly the ability of the vendors to act and organise
around their own priorities and concerns, will be put to
IIED + hIvosrEflEctIons sErIEs 17
4. LESSONS AND
The preceding sections demonstrate clearly why successful
interventions to shape the supply of food to low-income
citizens require an understanding of informality and
its current performance in delivering sustainable diets.
Informal food systems are the norm for hundreds of millions
of low-income people around the world, and central to
their food and nutrition security. They reach into informal
settlements that are home to a quarter of the world’s urban
population. They provide employment in rural and urban
areas, in trading, processing, retail, including for women
and youth who may have few other viable options for income
generation in countries where formal jobs are scarce.
Informal food systems are delivering affordable and often
nutritious food despite rather than because of policy. A
transition to sustainable diets that works for people and
planet should build on rather than criminalise or replace
functioning informal food systems. We call on donors,
policymakers, NGOs and CSOs to rethink the framing of
sustainable diets, to recognise the informal food economy
as an ally in achieving them, and to support those who work
in, and benet from, the informal food system.
4.1 Rethink: ground sustainable diets in people’s
The case studies in Section 3, set in the wider context
in Section 2, laid bare the disconnect between the
international framings of sustainable diets and the informal
food economy. Sustainable diets look different from the
perspective of informal food systems. This is part of a
wider mismatch with the green economy and sustainable
consumption agendas (Benson et al., 2014) as well as
with concepts of ‘inclusive business’ and ‘base of the
pyramid’ — both of which have been largely driven by the
The prevailing discourse of sustainable food systems that
favours short supply chains and the ‘local’ in general is a
poor t for many informal supply networks that extend
far beyond administrative boundaries. The certication
systems that dene ‘sustainable’ food put the price of that
food beyond the means of low-income households. The high
costs of verication, the lack of market premiums, and the
diffuse nature of informal supply networks mean that these
tools for demarcating sustainability are a poor t for the
realities of mainstream informal markets. More fundamental
is the dilemma that the ‘sustainability’ toolkit in markets
is comprised of tools for formalisation. To be sustainable
is to be formal, if sustainability is dened by standards,
certication and labelling.
Much food traded in the informal economy, while it
will not be branded as ‘sustainable’, complies with the
denition of sustainable diets in the Introduction. The
diversity, freshness and nutritiousness of food traded
in the informal sector may well outperform the formal
food system of supermarkets, chain convenience stores
and fast food outlets. The food sold by women cooks in
the markets of La Paz, Bolivia and streets of Fort Portal,
Uganda is an extension of a local tradition of healthy diets,
but no-one would term it ‘sustainable’. The dynamic and
entrepreneurial nature of informal food systems does mean
however that some vendors will respond to a westernisation
of tastes by selling food that contributes to obesity, mal-
and under-nutrition (Mayer et al., 2019).
Clearly a more exible approach to sustainable diets is
required to those developed in formal food systems. The
approach needs to account for differences in local context
and cultures, and build on calls to “meet people where they
are” (Vorley et al., 2020). Local concepts of sustainable
IIED + hIvosrEflEctIons sErIEs 18
food systems grounded in the realities and priorities of the
informal food systems of the poor may differ fundamentally
from dominant discourse (Béné et al., 2019). For example,
a sustainable food system which serves the majority poor
would also include the livelihoods of people employed in the
food system, in addition to the needs of sustainable diets.
The problems of unsustainable practices in informal food
systems need to be addressed, while tackling the irony
that sustainability has been an instrument of formalisation.
There is no reason why the informal world should be situated
outside of the sustainable world.
Our rst recommendation is aimed at international
organisations to rethink sustainable diets in the
International organisations should reframe the
concept of sustainable diets so that it is adaptable
to local realities and operational by local people
in transformations of informal food systems. More
effort should be made to understand and recognise
what is already at play in the informal food systems
of the poor that will t within a sustainability and
sustainable diets agenda, and build from there.
Informal employment and contribution to livelihoods
should be part of the denition and promotion of
4.2 Recognise: planning for the informal food
economy to be part of the solution
The informal food economy is here to stay for the
foreseeable future. A failure to recognise informal food
systems and the marginalisation of informal actors is
associated with two types of mismatch in policy and
planning. The rst is a mismatch in perception of informal
food systems, which leads to poor understanding and
assumptions about their importance and performance. For
example, in Bandung, street food vending was seen by the
government as an activity to enhance the city’s credentials
as a tourist gastronomic destination, but its essential role
of providing affordable nutrition to migrant workers was
overlooked. The second is a mismatch in policy design, in
which plans, policies, investments and interventions are
poorly adapted to the reality of the informal food economy.
For example, national and municipal governments typically
emphasise formalisation and public space restrictions as
panaceas to the ‘problem’ of informality (Crossa, 2009).
Few of these regulatory initiatives turn out to be durable,
as vendors are either replaced by others (Taylor and Song,
2016) or simply regroup nearby (Hüwelmeier, 2018). Rarely
do the struggles between informal vendors and authorities
acknowledge the contribution of informal actors to the food
security of the majority poor.
A more sustainable approach requires ‘a willingness to
embrace informality as a representation of itself “instead
of treating … [it] as an unwanted peculiarity constantly out
of place”’ (Kamete, 2020). It requires investment rather
than displacement, working to build on its strengths —
recognising and defending what’s working for sustainable
diets — and addressing its weaknesses. Improvements to
informal markets may have a much larger and longer-lasting
impact on the diets of the poor than attempts to set up new
projects. And by doing so, the livelihoods of thousands of
traders and vendors can be protected and supported.
Even international NGOs who are working to secure food
and nutrition for the poor may fail to recognise and engage
with informality. International agendas on sustainable
consumption and food systems transformation face the
same dilemma. In SD4All we have brought our experiences
and recognition of the informal sector in food systems
transformation to the global level, especially during
the second conference of the Sustainable Food Systems
Programme in Costa Rica in 2019. In a call to action (One
Planet Network, 2019), the programme members recognised
the role of informal market actors in a transition towards
healthier and more sustainable diets.
Our next recommendation, on recognition, is therefore
aimed at all levels of decision making, from municipal
authorities to national governments, donors and
Decision makers should consider informal food systems
as allies, not enemies, for achieving sustainable diets.
Finding common cause with actors in the informal food
system can enhance the potential of these partnerships
while respecting their priorities and concerns.
4.3 Support: interventions as common cause with
informal food systems
If we rethink the meaning of sustainable diets so that they
are grounded in the reality of the informal world, and we
recognise the importance and potential of informal food
systems as vehicles for health, nutrition and sustainability,
a third possible course of action is to support those who are
part of, and benet from, informal food systems. One of the
main lessons from SD4All is that the nature of that support,
and even the need for it, will be very different depending on
the circumstances of different actors. Below we reect on
what our work on agency, evidence, and advocacy in SD4All
teaches us about supporting the informal food economy.
The rst step in supporting the informal food system is a
recognition of people’s agency. This entails understanding
that their interest, need or desire to be supported varies
greatly. It also means being open to the possibility that some
may not want — or may actively want to avoid — support.
IIED + hIvosrEflEctIons sErIEs 19
Our experience in SD4All highlighted some of the challenges
faced by a programme which, being external to the world
of informality, had as one of its key objectives to engage
with and strengthen informal food systems. One of the main
challenges was distrust — which may be completely justied
— on the part of informal food market actors, not just of
government, but also of NGOs and large CSOs and their
projects, who have historically not engaged with or invested
in the informal sector. Another challenge was dealing
with the organisations of informal actors — or the lack
thereof. In Zambia, for example, vendors tend to distrust
the existing market associations that speak on behalf of
vendors, so getting a sense of what the traders want was
not a straightforward enterprise. This type of distrust is not
exceptional: a study in Hyderabad, India, suggested that
only a fth of vendors were organised (Dittrich, 2017). At
the other end of the spectrum, in Bolivia, market vendors
are organised in a very strict, hierarchical organisation.
Engagement with the ‘outside world’ — including our
programme — is tightly controlled by the elected leaders.
Finding common cause — ie understanding where the
agendas of external organisations and of informal sector
actors overlap — is critical to developing trust and to
establishing a mutually respectful relationship.
The programme had some success in supporting the
agency of informal food vendors through strengthening
food vendors’ associations, as was the case in Fort Portal.
But in some cases, most notably in Bolivia, informal food
actors did not necessarily want or need to be more visible.
It may be naïve to expect a readiness of informal actors
to collaborate through formal channels when they spend
their life operating below the radar or in a legal grey area.
At the same time, engaging with the informal sector tends
not to be a priority among most development actors. In
some ways the experiences of SD4All reected the broader
biases of governments, international donors and even
many CSOs against working with the informal food sector
and recognising the contributions of informal actors. We
worked to change this, for example, by trying to ensure
sustained participation from informal actors in multi-
stakeholder platforms in Fort Portal and Lusaka, but with
The advocacy agenda of informal actors within SD4All was
very broad. The challenges faced by the informal food
economy include short-term, practical issues such as lack
of food storage or refrigeration, no access to water and
sanitation, or poor infrastructure. Other long-term issues
include lack of social protection, policy neglect (Brown
Juice stall, La Paz, Bolivia (Mauricio Panozo/Hivos)
IIED + hIvosrEflEctIons sErIEs 20
and McGranahan, 2016), harassment and rent extraction
by organised crime and, sometimes, the state (Assheuer
and Keck, 2019), exclusion from the banking system, or the
capture of markets by political parties or cadres (Etzold,
2013). The agenda of low-income consumers — crucial
stakeholders in the informal food system — involves concerns
about affordability, safety, and nutrition. Supporting the
informal food economy through advocacy thus involves
considering a wide variety of actors, motivations and needs.
Donors, international organisations and civil society
organisations can support this agenda in multiple ways,
but must always be mindful of the agency of informal
sector actors and operate according to the idea of common
cause. Donors may nd it easier to work with large, formal
businesses or organisations, but the path to sustainable
diets for all runs through the — admittedly harder to engage
— informal sector. One type of support that was effective
in SD4All was strengthening the capacities of civil society
organisations in lobbying and advocacy (see Lartey &
Nicolini, 2020) or evidence generation (see below). Donors
and international organisations can also use their privilege
to open platforms of dialogue with governments and
other decision makers, as we tried to do via Food Change
Labs. Finally, donors can provide direct nancial support
for infrastructure and other interventions conducive to
improved health, safety and working conditions.
Our next recommendation is also directed to all levels of
decision making in local and national governments, donors
and international bodies:
Support for actors in the informal economy — including
workers, traders, vendors, consumers and their
organisations — must start with a clear understanding of
their own needs and priorities, as well as their ongoing
initiatives and actions; this will help identify the type
of support, if any, that they could benet from. When
needed, the support to informal food system actors
can range from strengthening their lobby and advocacy
capacities, opening opportunities for dialogue with
decision makers, and improving infrastructure.
We have shown how generating evidence can help close the
wide gaps in information on informal food systems, draw
in policymakers, challenge perceptions, and highlight the
mismatch between existing policies and the realities of the
food systems of the poor. Evidence can also be an insurance
against presumption of intervention and food system
transformation. Evidence can show what the food system is
doing well already, what can be improved, and what needs
to be defended rather than ‘transformed’.
Generating and using evidence is not a top priority for most
informal actors. But our experiences of generating evidence
with street food vendors, cooks, and their customers showed
that evidence generation with and by informal food sector
actors can be both possible and benecial. Generating
evidence can build condence in organisations that they
are on the right track, and give them opportunities for
engagement with decision makers using facts and gures.
This was clear in our work with informal food vendors in
Zambia, where AZIEA used the launch of our joint report
(Mwango et al., 2019) to step up the conversation with
municipal authorities in Lusaka and Kitwe.
In addition to the work with market actors, the evidence
generated in the SD4All countries discussed in this paper
revealed how informal markets are crucial links in agri-
food chains and access points for low-income consumers to
achieve sustainable diets. For example, in Bandung evidence
from food diaries showed high dietary diversity among
female textile workers who subsist largely on street food
(Natawidjaja et al., 2019). In Zambia, household interviews
showed that informal markets were the main, and often
only, source of fresh fruits and vegetables for consumers in
low-income neighbourhoods (Mwango et al., 2019). At the
same time, the research could not ignore the fact that many
informal markets — like supermarkets and mini-marts in the
formal sector — are sources of less nutritious, energy-dense
foods, which needs to be taken into account when assessing
their relative contribution to the diets and health of low-
income citizens (Mayer et al., 2019).
The SD4All programme’s evidence generation focused on
affordability, nutrition and livelihoods. The programme was
less successful in exploring the link between informality
and aspects of sustainability related to the environment,
such as supporting regenerative forms of agriculture, or
reducing postharvest food losses. Our work on Zambia
showed the importance of informal markets for the
marketing of agro-biodiverse production (Mwanamwenge
and Cook, 2019); dietary diversity could provide a ‘pull’
for diversity in production and could counterbalance
the widespread promotion of western diets and ultra-
processed food. However, the shortage of evidence on links
between informality and environment represents a large
Building the capacity of informal actors, their organisations,
CSOs and research partners to generate evidence is critical
for evidence-based advocacy and policy. It is important,
however, to recognise that the quest for scientic process
and rigour can keep experts and consultants in the driving
seat, and keep evidence locked in a language that is foreign
IIED + hIvosrEflEctIons sErIEs 21
In SD4All moving from the production of evidence to
advocacy proved to be a challenge. It revealed a tension
between the immediate needs of informal market actors and
broader societal needs. This shows the utmost importance
of addressing basic needs and challenges faced by actors in
the informal food economy while also addressing sustainable
diets. Relationship-building with actors in the informal
sector (including consumers and workers) is best achieved
not by arriving with a pre-set agenda, but by creating space
and openness to understand what evidence and interventions
will be of use. It requires a revised role for CSOs, one
where they facilitate links between informal actors and
policymakers rather than occupy that space and claim to
‘represent the voice’ of the informal food economy.
Our fourth and nal recommendation is aimed at
CSOs, research institutions and other evidence-
In initiatives to generate evidence within the informal
food economy, experts should play a supporting
rather than leading role in the design, analysis and
interpretation of data. We should also acknowledge
that the constraint to action may not be a lack of
evidence, but a failure to use available evidence.
IIED + hIvosrEflEctIons sErIEs 22
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