In the coming "century of cities", a major challenge will be providing adequate quantities of nutritional and affordable food for urban inhabitants, especially the poor. One very effective way of enhancing urban consumers' food security is improving the efficiency of all activities that bring food into - and distribute it within - urban areas: assembling, handling, sorting, packaging, storing, transporting, processing, wholesaling, retailing and cooking for sale as street food.
Bottom line. However, FAO says, many urban managers and planners think of their city more in terms of housing, transport, security and social facilities, rather than food marketing systems. As a result, market infrastructure in developing countries is often poorly planned, municipal regulations lag behind changes in the food economy and commercial practices, and - here's the bottom line - urban consumers are paying more for food than they should be.
FAO's Agricultural Support Systems Division (AGS) has researched extensively the constraints facing urban food marketing in developing countries. First, in many Latin American and Asian countries, both the construction and the expansion of wholesale markets have lagged behind the growth in urban populations and food flows. African cities, with very few exceptions, lack specific wholesale market facilities.
Existing retail market areas are often inadequate. Cold-storage is usually inefficient - or does not work at all, owing to lack of proper maintenance - and rent is often high. Perishable food products, therefore, deteriorate rapidly. Public markets also lack professional management and are unable to enforce regulations. Consequently, trading in public markets becomes more difficult and, therefore, costly.
"Many food traders see 'official' urban markets as a source of revenue for
local town coffers, and complain that funds are often not reinvested
in infrastructure maintenance and better services," says AGS. "This leads
to traders feeling that market taxes are not justified and to unrest when rates are increased."
"Spontaneous" markets. AGS also points out that while better-off consumers shop at supermarkets, low-income urban residents usually go to local shops or market places near their homes, or buy from street vendors. However, public retail markets have not expanded fast enough in newly urbanized areas and existing markets have been unable to accommodate the increasing number of retailers.
The lack of space and market opportunities in satellite townships often prompts the emergence of "spontaneous" markets, which fill an important gap in the food distribution chain but create traffic, health and environmental problems. In Lima, Peru, 80% of retail markets grew spontaneously, often near low-income areas with few public facilities. In low-income parts of Latin American cities, a multitude of small, family-run food shops compete for the local market. Such competition - made more intense by the growing presence of supermarkets and hypermarkets - and the lack of entrepreneurial skills, are responsible for low and even negative returns which, in turn, deter private investment.
Strategic vision. Through its programme "Food Supply and Distribution to Cities", AGS aims at advising mayors, city managers and urban planners on ways if improving urban food marketing and food security.
The first step, says AGS, is an adequate understanding of urban food marketing: "City authorities need to develop a strategic vision of how their city is expected to evolve in the medium (4-6 years) and long term (10-15 years) with respect to spatial, demographic and economic developments, as well as food requirements". They need to formulate local policies and programmes to reduce food marketing and access costs, promote productive employment in food marketing, and expand urban and peri-urban agriculture.
To cut costs, they should promote itinerant and weekly markets, ferias libres, and shops and supermarkets that buy directly from organised producers, supporting them with specific regulations, permits, logistical support and incentives. Facilitating physical access to markets might require investments in roads and parking, reorganization of traffic flows, and relocation of specific market functions (e.g. food redistribution) to secondary cities to decrease pressure on already congested urban centres.
Other recommended measures include facilitating dialogue among consumer, trader and transporter associations, and involving them in planning decisions, increasing the awareness and technical competence of shopkeepers, market traders, transporters and market managers through information and training programmes, and improving management and maintenance of urban markets in collaboration with market users.
"Such a cooperative action will improve consumers' access to food," says AGS. "Cities will thus become less vulnerable, more sustainable and just and, therefore, better places in which to live."
Published June 1999