Supermarkets out! Food systems are doing just fine without them

by GRAIN | 26 Nov 2018


Matilda Moses sells tomatoes in Tudu Market, part of a sprawling district of open-air and covered markets in Accra, Ghana. Photo: Yepoka Yeebo

Supermarket watch Asia bulletin, Issue 12, November 2018

Editorial: Supermarkets out of Africa! Food systems are doing just fine without them

In this edition of the Supermarkets Watch Asia Bulletin, we look at the expansion of multinational food companies and retailers from a widened point-of-view. These companies are adopting new strategies to expand their presence in Asia and across the globe. The editorial of this number of the Bulletin focuses on the aggressive actions of multinational supermarket chains in Africa. Their impact on local food systems has given birth to a new struggle across the African continent, led by small farmers, small vendors and consumers.

“Traders and local farmers cannot compete with some of the multinational suppliers contracted to supply eggs, oranges, passion fruits and vegetables to supermarkets. The prices they offer are ridiculously low and a slap on the face of the local trader and farmer.”

Abubakar Omondi, the organising secretary, Wakulima Farmers Society, Nakuru, Kenya.

Omondi, together with small traders and vendors in Kenya's Nakuru county are disgruntled about supermarkets and their modus operandi in the area, methods that are replicated across Sub Saharan Africa. As such, the small vendors of the Wakulima (farmers) market in Nakuru county have proposed new legislation that will, among other things, block supermarkets in the county from selling fresh farm produce and make it illegal for them to stock vegetables, dairy products and fresh fruits on their shelves in the county. Most importantly though, the legislation compels the county law-makers to “conduct routine maintenance and repairs on all public markets within its jurisdiction, as dilapidated infrastructure and poor hygienic conditions have been blamed for reduced customer numbers in the facilities.”

On a continent where there is increasing persecution and repression of small farmers and open-air markets, this move by the Wakulima market traders is extremely heartwarming and exemplary. It is precisely this kind of thinking that informs GRAIN’s recently released report, “Supermarkets out of Africa! Food systems are doing just fine without them.”

The report examines how multinational supermarkets are expanding rapidly across Sub Saharan Africa, which they see as a final frontier for growth, and looks at the impacts this is having on local markets, small farmers and people's health. It also shows how African policy-makers are failing to deal with the issue, especially when it comes to protecting the continent’s vibrant traditional food systems.

Most Africans still consume a healthy diet of traditional foods, supplied by millions of small vendors and small farmers across the continent. But this is changing as global food companies and retailers adopt new strategies to expand their presence on the continent, led by the aggressive actions of some multinational supermarket chains. The livelihoods of millions of small vendors and local farmers are at risk, as are people’s health and the continent’s diverse traditional food cultures. This new wave of supermarkets is a new form of colonial domination meant to extract wealth from Africans.

In the last decade, changes have been registered not only in shopping patterns but also in nutrition and diets across Sub Saharan Africa. Until recently, certain diet-related diseases and health conditions were not common on the continent because diets on the African continent are generally healthier than in other parts of the world. But supermarkets and other multinational food chains are changing this situation by encouraging the consumption of “ultra-processed foods” - packaged foods like soft drinks and biscuits that are high in salt, sugar and vegetable oil and that are a cause of numerous health problems, most notably the increased levels of obesity and type 2 diabetes now affecting much of the world.

Also, the usual open-air markets, village shops, road-side stalls and small corner shops are facing competition from supermarkets and shopping malls that are springing up on a daily basis. Local producers are feeling the pinch too:

“They judge us on pricing and branding and they forget that we are new entrants. Also, you are competing with global brands because the market is liberalised. We are competing with American Garden, Heinz, products from Kenya. Remember, some of these products have been around for over 50 years.” 

Dorothy Kimuli, owner of the Ugandan company producing Kim’s Chilli Sauce.

But while African governments do little but facilitate this expansion of foreign supermarkets, small vendors, farmers and urban consumers are mobilising to defend their local food systems. Struggles akin to the Wakulima grocers struggle are also taking place in Senegal by the Auchan dégage ("Auchan get out!") movement and, to a certain extent, in Swaziland by the Swaziland Justice Forum.

"We are ready to fight," says Mohamed Moustapha Leye, one of the leaders of the Auchan dégage movement of small vendors in Senegal. "This is about our survival."

To put this into context, Africa’s "informal" food sector not only feeds the vast majority of people across the continent, it also accounts for about 72 percent of total employment in Sub-Saharan Africa, of which 66 percent is non-agricultural employment.

The term ‘informal traders’ is used to mean businesses that do not require a lot of capital to set up and manage and are also unrecognised, unprotected, unlicensed and unrecorded by public authorities. In 1990 alone, 93 percent of jobs created on the African continent were attributed to this informal sector. It is therefore critical that the sector is supported, rather than criminalised. This is a reality across the continent, a reality that governments need to wake up to.

The fight is on now to resist corporate control and build the power of local food systems led by local communities across Africa and beyond.

Read the full report at: (available in English and French)


Supermarkets: today’s food source - Trends and impact

The growth of the supermarket sector has been very rapid. Today, only 30 global supermarket chains control a third of the global retail food market, reaping a huge share of the market of the food that the people around the world eat. This is not just a modern trend, an evolution of the way things are sold. It is connected to structural issues. The supermarkets’ sprawling expansion has been supported and promoted by Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), investment liberalisation, government policies to promote foreign direct investment, and laws and regulations that make it more difficult for small-scale food systems to continue to operate. Supermarket distribution systems are being tremendously subsidised by governments, using tax-payers' money. Just like the industrial farming system that produces the bulk of the raw materials that go into the cheap processed foods lining their shelves.

The report is a summary of a public seminar co-organised by the Biothai Foundation and GRAIN in Bangkok, in September 2018. Participants from 14 countries exchanged experiences from local and international work on current trends that are threatening long-lasting impacts on local food systems, small-scale farmers, food producers and local shopkeepers and street vendors, consumers' health and the environment. 

Presentations covered five issues: an overview of the key issues in the global expansion of supermarkets; the growth of supermarkets in Africa; native food systems vs. industrial food processing in Mexico; the emergence of e-commerce in Asia; and the development and monopolisation of modern retail trade in Thailand.

The full summary from the public seminar can be read here:

Tsukiji market, another end to East Asian historical fish markets

On 6 October 2018, the world’s oldest fish market, Tsukiji market, has stopped operating. It has been closed for relocation after 83 years operating. The market opened in 1935 in Tokyo’s Chuo ward, near the popular Ginza shopping district. Since then, it has been supplying high-quality fish produce worth around US$ 13 million every day, as well as hundreds of types of fruits and vegetables. Since its opening, it has also fed Japan’s hunger for fresh seafood. The market is famous for its daily pre-dawn auctions of tuna, where ordinary grocery stores can compete with top chefs to get the best quality tuna for their sushi.

What happened in Tsukiji market sounds very similar to the situation that unfolded in the neighboring country of South Korea earlier this year. Eviction plans hit another historical fish market, the Noryangjin market, located in the heart of Seoul. Both are very old fish markets that  occupy large space in very strategic locations, in East Asia’s most thriving metropoles. both are facing relocations with similar reasons; the need for better sanitation and safety, the need for upgraded technology, like better refrigeration systems. But are these the real reasons?

The plan to relocate Tsukiji market started back in 2001, but it stumbled upon resistance from local residents and other supporters. The Toyosu ward, where the new Tsukiji market would be relocated, had previously housed the Tokyo Gas factory and high levels of the toxic chemical benzene were and are still detected at the site. The plan to relocate was then postponed, as the Tokyo city government tried to find ways to tackle the contamination issue.

The relocation plan was revived prior to the 2016 Olympics, when Japan joined the bidding as Olympic host. Japan didn’t win the bidding that year. The Tsukiji market spreads around 23 hectares of land, and the Tokyo mayor at that time, Isihara, decided to build a media centre to serve the Olympics in that exact location. The city government decided that a newly constructed market would open in November 2016. However, when the new Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike was elected to her position, she noted a problem with safety, and put off the relocation plan only about two months before the new market was due to open.

Now, as Japan gears up again to host the 2020 Olympics, the situation is heating up again in Tsukiji market. And this time the relocation is expected to go through, as the new Toyosu market has been opened on 11 October. The new market is a closed-style market with air-conditioning that is said to be essential for freshness and hygiene control. However, protesters fear that the bulk of the contamination issue is still unresolved. Monitoring results from July to early October by the metropolitan government still found concentrations of toxic levels of benzene exceeding environmental standards by as much as 130 to 140 times. Other toxic chemicals such as arsenic were also detected at a level up to four times higher than the standards. Cyanide, which must not be present in groundwater in any concentration, has also been detected.

A poll taken among the market’s 500 or so wholesalers, shows that most of them were against the move. In addition to the hazardous pollution found in the new location, the vendors and workers at the new Toyosu market have reported a problem that they had never encountered in the old market, unbearable disgusting stenches around the fish wholesale area. Officials who oversee the market said the foul odours happen due to the building’s airtightness.

A week before the official date of relocation, on 29 September, several hundred protesters held a demonstration against the relocation, chanting “Save the Tsukiji Market”. The protesters already filed a legal suit in a bid to prevent the move. If hygiene and sanitation are the main reasons to move the world’s biggest fish market, then why is it being moved to a polluted and ill-equipped installation that generates fetid odours?

Article written by GRAIN 

Based on an interview with Chie Masumoto ([email protected]), independent journalist who follows the issue, and various media reporting.

Che Abrigo, founder and owner of Sierreza in her store in Los Baños, the Philippines.

Sierreza, Los Baños community-supported agriculture and zero-waste shop

Sierreza, a small shop in the student town of Los Banos, Philippines, has just been operating for a few months, but has already had many people talking about it. Opened on 8 August 2018, the shop brings a zero-waste concept and helps distributing produces from Kutotubo (indigenous) farmers from around the Sierra Madre mountains of Luzon.

Che Abrigo, Sierreza’s founder and owner, said she’s been adapting the concept of her shop from the popular ‘sari-sari’ stores. Sari-sari stores are a kind of family-run convenience store in the Philippines, which operates within the shopkeeper's residence. Sari-sari generally sell consumable goods from basic food items like sugar, coffee and cooking condiments, to other necessities like soap or shampoo at economically-sized quantities which are affordable; this is because, according to a survey, about 93 percent of all sari-sari stores are located in residential communities and thrive even in the poorest communities. They hold an important economic and social status within the Filipino community and can be found abundantly in neighbourhoods.

Che explained how people go to a sari-sari bringing their own containers and jars; they can buy what they need in small units and don’t have to buy the whole package. There’s less waste compared to modern convenience stores, where everything is packaged in plastic sachets even for small goods and prevents people from bring their own containers and bags. Che has been trying to replicate these practices in her store, allowing and encouraging consumers to bring their own containers to buy whatever they need - vegetable oil, tea leaves, soap. Clients are also starting to collect and recycle beer and milk bottles that they collect from the neighborhood. 

Every Thursday, once a week, Che will drive 2,5 hours to pick up fresh produces from the farmers around the Sierra Madre mountains. Sierreza now works with four communities, three in Rizal and one in Tarlac, in Central Luzon. Che has been picking up fresh produce from local farmers for more than two years before she established Sierreza. She managed to market the fresh produce through ‘Good Food Community’ and ‘Healthy Options’, two among the growing Community Shared Agriculture and all-natural products stores in the Philippines.

Today, she sells the produce mainly at Sierreza or at the weekly organic market held at the University of the Philippines Los Banos. It wasn’t an easy process according to Che. Initially, the farmers are charcoal makers from the woods they take in the forest around their village. And it takes time to build trust and work with the farmers and ensure that they regularly produce enough fresh, organic food and vegetables to supply the shop. Besides Che, there are two other full-time staff and one part-time staff who work with her at Sierreza.

Besides distributing fresh produce from Kutotubo farmers of the Sierra Madre mountain area, Sierreza also runs a small coffeeshop that serves delicious local coffee and delicacies like the flourless tableya (chocolate) cake and other Pinoy delicacies. According to Che, the coffeeshop helps them maintain a small profit and keep the price of the organic produce affordable. She hopes that it can also help them develop a distribution system with more Kutotubo farmers.

Written by GRAIN

Interview with Che Abrigo, the founder and owner of Sierreza in Los Banos, the Philippines
For further information about Sierreza, please check: Sierreza- Los Baños community-supported agriculture

Supermarket watch Asia is a quarterly email bulletin for social movements about developments in food retail and distribution in Asia produced by GRAIN. Click here to view the full issue and subscribe.


Author: GRAIN
Links in this article:
  • [1]
  • [2]
  • [3]
  • [4]
  • [5]
  • [6]
  • [7]
  • [8]
  • [9] mailto:[email protected]
  • [10]
  • [11]