Beyond the ‘informal economy’ of food distribution

by GRAIN | 26 May 2023

In April 2023, a strike notice was filed by several unions representing the entire food retail sector in Belgium. The strike action was motivated by concerns over grocery store chains switching to a franchise model that would allow the stores to transform jobs for full-time workers entitled to social rights and benefits into jobs for independent workers without labour protections.

The Belgium strike resonated with a strike in Asia by delivery riders for the online food delivery service FoodPanda. The protest began with delivery riders in Myanmar and soon spread to other countries like Hong Kong, Pakistan and the Philippines. The workers are demanding fairer wages and better working conditions, as well as protections against and compensation for accidents or injuries sustained during work hours.

The supermarket workers and the food delivery riders may be categorised as being part of the ‘formal’ sector but their working conditions are not so different from those in the ‘informal’ food distribution supply chain, where market traders and street vendors are also fighting for social protections. Both share many of the same "vulnerabilities" despite providing for one of the most basic needs of people.

These so-called 'informal sector" small food producers and vendors have shown time and again their resiliance in the face of multiple crises and their indisputable role in sustaining community and the economy. There are a lot of misunderstandings about ‘informal’ workers like street vendors and market traders. One of the most common is that market traders and street vendors do not contribute to economic growth or generate revenues for the cities or towns where they operate. In reality, market traders and street vendors generate revenues for cities through payments for licenses and permits, fees, and various types of taxes They are also routinely subjected to fines for minor transgressions. Another common misunderstanding is that ‘informal’ workers are less organised compared to ‘formal’ workers, while the truth is that market traders and street vendors are highly organised and help create jobs, not only for themselves but for many others such as porters, transport operators, storage providers, and others involved in more horizontal structures compared to workers in the ‘formal sector’.

Perhaps it is time to stop putting this work in the box of the “informal sector”, and start calling it something more representative of what it truly is? Some have adopted terms like “solidarity economy” or “people’s sector” to more accurately convey the important role that the workers of the so-called "informal sector" play in the local economy and their key contribution in providing food to everyone, in connecting food producers with consumers and in ensuring an equitable distribution of wealth. In this edition of the bulletin, we share stories of resilient Palestinian women farmers producing food boxes and of farmers in Laos using strategies to market their products in the face of a fuel price spike.

Across the region

Gaza women’s solidarity marketing and dignity baskets

Women farmers prepare food basket, GUPAP

“The liberation of people depends on food sovereignty” says Ahmed Sourani, general coordinator of Gaza Urban and Peri-Urban Agriculture Platform (GUPAP) during a conversation with GRAIN last April. GUPAP was launched in 2013 to map the strategies of Palestinian communities, and support community led partnerships to create a resilient Palestinian agriculture. “People have the power to develop strategies. We need to work under the leadership of farmers” explains Ahmed.

In 2019, GUPAP launched the initiative of Urban Women Agripreneurs Platform (UWAF) to unite women who are involved in agriculture and food production – what they call "agripreneurs" - in Gaza. It started with 10 women and now there are 200 participants. UWAF aims to be a safe space for women, where any woman that has a small food and agriculture business can participate, without the need for formal registration.

The women's platform launched a ‘solidarity marketing’ campaign in 2022 through which it buys foods from 52 women agripreneurs and then organises and distributes these in "dignity baskets" to families in Gaza, including those in refugee camps and hospitals.

“We make sure the baskets are high in nutrition, by filling them with Palestinian vegetables, and some local meats like rabbit," says Alaa Abu Jayab, UAWF's community participation and advocacy coordinator. Food insecurity is high among Palestinian women, particularly in the Gaza strip where 64 per cent of women-led families are food insecure. Currently, the food baskets provide healthy and nutritious food to more than 470 women who are in crisis.

The solidarity marketing campaign also benefits women farmers, not only by purchasing their products, but by providing them with capacity sharing and agriculture inputs. GUPAP has built a network of micro seed banks that the farmers have at their home. “These seed banks are key to confront Israeli agribusiness companies, which want to control people’s seeds and the food system. While GUPAP and UWAF helped facilitate this process, especially the Food Box Action Plan, it really was the women farmers who led the whole process, and this meant they were the owners of the campaign,” says Ahmed.

Article from GRAIN’s interview with Ahmad Sourani and Alaa Abu Jayab of GUPAP/UWAF
For further information on the solidarity marketing campaign: [email protected]

Transport costs limit access to market for smallholder farmers in Laos

Vegetable stall from Oudomxay and Xiengkhouang province, Laos Farmer Network

In Laos, farmers are struggling to access farm inputs and to bring their foods to market because of high transportation costs. The situation is particularly difficult for farmers in remote provinces.

In February 2023, Chintanaphone (Noy) Keovichith of the Lao Farmer Network talked with three farmers groups from the country's Southern and Northern parts about these challenges. Each group said that they were struggling to cope with high transportation costs, and they all spoke of the need for government intervention to limit food imports and strengthen domestic markets for their produce. Below is an interview with one of the farmers that Noy spoke with, Mrs. Sor from Hiem District in Houaphan Province.

Noy: What are the products you are harvesting now in your group?
Sor: Since December up to now, we have been harvesting carrots, beetroots and white radish. The price of white radish sold in the capital city, Vientiane, is 6,000 -7,000 kip per kg (0.35-0.41 USD). At that price it is difficult for us to get any profit because we have to pay the transportation fee to bring it to Vientiane by ourselves. However, we need to sell them anyway, if not our products will go to waste.

How much is the transportation fee that you have to pay from Hiem district to Vientiane?
Sor: It is very difficult to transport goods to Vientiane because Hiem district is far away from the city. Before 2021-2022, we can only transport the goods by bus and the fee was 3,000 kip per kg of goods that is delivered, it’s really high for us. Last year our group manage to get a contract with local transporter who can deliver the goods to Taladlao fresh market in Vientiane capital with the cost of 2,300 kip per kilogram. Compared to the previous situation, the transportation situation is now more comfortable, but the transportation fee is still very high to sends goods to the Vientiane market.

If it is expensive to transport farm products to Vientiane, why don’t you sell them here in the province or to the Vietnam border?
Sor: The farmers group produces a lot of different vegetables like carrots, beetroots, white radish and Japanese sweet potatoes, but there is no large market for selling our products nearby.
In April, we will have the third round of harvest of carrots and white radishes. We could sell some of this in the Houa Phan area, which is nearby, but people just buy small amounts for daily cooking. We could not sell in the Vietnam border because there are also many Vietnamese products being sold there, and their products look more vibrant than our organic vegetables. If there is a support policy to limit import products, I think it will be good for Laos farmers. Next April and May, the group will harvest around two tons of Japanese sweet potatoes that we will send to Sam Nue and Vientiane capital.

If you don’t have a large market for carrot or white radish, why don’t you change to producing carrot seeds? Or what else can you do?
Sor: It is a mountainous landscape here. We don’t have enough area to plant seeds because it will take about 8 months before harvest. Now, we plant carrots and other crops in the rice field. So, all this needs to be harvested before the rice season begin. For the next season, I will make a contract with buyers before planting. Last year, I learned my lesson: we had only a whistle contract, if they refused to buy from us, we couldn’t fine them or say anything. However, I would like to plant roots because they are easier to deliver from my area to farther destinations.

Article and interview by Chintanaphone (Noy) Keovichith, Laos Farmer Network ([email protected])

From the news

Migrants in supermarket supply chains face “horrific” conditions
Jasmine Owens, Ethical Consumer
UK-owned supermarket fruit and vegetable supply chains reportedly violated eight out of nine labour standards. A report published by Ethical Consumer named supermarket chains such as Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Waitrose for sourcing fruits and vegetables from exploitative farms.

Food and climate: supermarkets get a bad mark (original article in French)
Climate Action Network
Our current diet impacts the environment and contributes to the climate crisis by producing 24% of our greenhouse gas emissions. In places like France, where 70 per cent of food purchases are made in supermarkets, the ability to have a sustainable diet depends heavily on the practices of retailers.
The Climate Action Network recently published a study on the role of supermarkets in the transition to sustainable food, looking at eight main French-owned retailers: Auchan, Carrefour, Casino, Intermarché, E. Leclerc, Lidl, Monoprix and Super U. Their finding: all the brands are very far from making any improvement.

Launch of Love Your Local Market campaign 2023
World Union for Wholesale Market
The World Union for Wholesale Market (WUWM), an international network of fresh food and products organisations consisting of wholesalers, retailers and street markets from over 40 countries, is launching their annual ‘Love your local market’ campaign. The campaign brings together more than 3,000 retail markets across the world, offering diverse and high-quality healthy food from the farms and local producers. These markets are the true operational short circuits, standing in contrast to the increasingly industrialised offerings of large-scale retailers.

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Author: GRAIN
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