Maverick Citizen


Informal food system ‘remains overlooked and unsupported’ by government

Informal food system ‘remains overlooked and unsupported’ by government
The vegetable traders at the CBD taxi rank risk fines and raids from Law Enforcement. (Photo: Daniel Steyn)

Food price inflation has been rising since lockdown started in March 2020; and while small-scale farmers, producers and traders could help bring it down, the sector took the hardest blows during hard Covid-19 lockdowns and continues to be overlooked.

Local government has to step up or step aside if it continues to be unwilling or unable to put in place the support and infrastructure to allow localised food systems to operate. Professor Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas) at the University of the Western Cape puts it plainly: 

“We have to ask if we have a state that is capable of coherently planning and implementing policy that is going to change the food system in favour of the poor. If we don’t, then the least they can do is to step aside, stop the harassment of street traders and make available space, land and basic infrastructure so people can trade and drive their own development.”

Hall on Thursday presented the initial findings of a year-long Plaas-led research project that looked at the impact of Covid-19 responses on the political economies and food systems in South Africa, Tanzania and Ghana. 

In South Africa, the focus areas were on the produce markets in Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg and the fisheries sector on the West Coast. The project also factored in the impacts of the July looting and unrest in KZN and Gauteng.  

The report ultimately is the researchers’ call for authorities and broader society to pay more careful attention to a massive and vital informal food system that is under pressure. It remains overlooked and unsupported even as it plays a role in providing large numbers of informal jobs and ensures food security and food access for many low-income households. This is also framed, Hall said, against the current trend that has seen food inflation exceed general CPI inflation since the lockdown period of March 2020.

“We don’t see the gap narrowing, so it tells us that food prices are presenting a crisis for consumers. These increasing costs that have been passed on to consumers are not necessarily supporting the small-scale farmers and small-scale fishers, who are being squeezed out. Meanwhile, companies such as Tiger Brands and Shoprite have both declared quite striking earnings per share. 

“Primarily, we see the inflation gap coming as a result of supermarkets passing on these rising input costs to consumers and small-scale traders being squeezed,” she said.

The researchers have identified this pressure on small traders as stemming not only from the loss of their markets, or the loss of their supply, but “particularly because of the way in which local government has regulated the space for trading”.

There is also sometimes outright discrimination and bullying of small produce traders. Hall highlighted how, for instance, soldiers were deployed to control queues and crowds outside large supermarkets during the first lockdown, while the Johannesburg metro police were, on their own Twitter accounts, posting photos of confiscated fruit and vegetables from street traders. This continues to take place, even during lower lockdown levels.

“We have, in the regulations themselves and in the manner of their enforcement at a local government level, clear discrimination in the treatment of those in different parts of the food system,” Hall said.

The researchers call for the formation of safe public food markets where there is high foot traffic, with adequate infrastructure and facilities such as toilets and water. In the case of fisheries, there need to be refrigeration facilities for the cleaning, processing and safe handling of fish. 

“In post-crisis [Covid-19 hard lockdown and the July unrest] recovery we have to build back, but build back differently. We need to question who is automatically granted licences to rebuild and how planning processes integrate informal traders and food system actors. We need to be having conversations with the different traders’ associations who are being ignored,” she said.

Other recommendations call for an end to the harassment of street traders and the confiscation of their produce, and a review of flaws in the permit system for street traders. 

There is a renewed call to ensure that price controls of 10 essential food items approved under Covid-19 disaster management be enforced and that the food items make up a more realistic basket of items being tracked for food inflation. The researchers also want to fast-track access to land for farming production and related trades. 

There’s urgency for these recommendations to inform discussion and policy now, because, says Hall, new pandemics are inevitable, and so are new crises.

The findings also show the consequences of a militarised lockdown: unequal enforcement of rules and regulations and the failings of slow and strategically inadequate responses.

The researchers’ collection of community “food diary stories” and interviews spotlighted the deep and widespread impact on households and communities as small enterprises were decimated during the months of hard lockdown.

The researchers noted an imbalance in emergency financial assistance and relief, and access to this relief, between formal and informal traders. While corporations with financial muscle and lobbying powers could pressure the government to ensure big business had better cushioning, small traders were shut down. 

Licensing for essential services “enabled large-scale and formal sector producers, traders and retailers to carry on doing business, but it stopped street and bakkie traders from selling food; prevented fishers from setting out to sea and selling their catches at fair prices; and blocked access to markets for small-scale farmers,” the researchers said.

Hall said that when street trade was finally allowed during the lockdown, it was simply too late for many traders. “By then their produce had gone rotten; they lost their capital and many of their customers too.”

When government assistance did come it would often be too late and then also a mismatch. Hall told of one broiler farmer who lost all his chickens and was unable to keep his business going, but weeks later received chicken feed from the government. The researchers raised questions about how the government decides which beneficiaries qualify for what relief.

Another impact was from school meals programmes coming to a halt during lockdown. This affected many women farmers who supplied produce for the children’s meals.

Plaas coordinator Professor Moenieba Isaacs, interviewed after the presentation, said the impact of hard lockdowns “has an undeniable gendered face”, as women faced more job losses during Covid. 

She said Covid had added pressure on fishing communities to put price tags on every fish caught. 

“It meant there was no food left for the community and a higher risk of malnourishment in poor communities as fish was sold off to high-end restaurants. It also meant the women who were employed to clean and process the fish lost these jobs.” 

Covid also meant women shouldered additional burdens of childcare and teaching when schooling was suspended, Isaacs said. Women had to juggle tighter food budgets because many children who received at least one meal a day through the school meals schemes had to find an additional meal at home.

“Beyond policies, we have to look at this through a political economy lens to understand why this is happening. Covid just showed this up more. We need to ask the question of how the commercialisation and corporatisation of food systems are allowed to continue to strip food sources from the poorest people,” she said. DM/MC


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mpumi Bikitsha says:

    As a lay person and a consumer, I make certain observations regarding the commercialization of certain goods. I&J frozen hake has shrunk ridiculously and the cost shot up sky high. I’m greeted by very flat, tiny pieces of what looks like sliced (longitudinally) hake fish, probably six in a flat box. It’s painful and broad daylight robbery. So many are getting away with murder but we continue to buy. 🤷🏽

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