Nutrition in the townships

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Our failing food system Our current food system is riddled with polarities. According to the World Health Organisation, 462 million adults are underweight while 1.9 billion are overweight.

Similar problems emerge among children. While 42 million children under the age of 5 years are either obese or overweight, 156 million children are stunted (too short for their age) and 50 million children are wasted (too thin for their length). These statistics point to a food system that is failing to meet the needs of everyone on the planet.

Globalisation and urbanisation are further driving malnutrition across the globe by causing diets to shift: away from nutrient dense foods to food that provide less nutrition and a higher energy value. In Africa this transition is causing people to buy food instead of grow food. Health24 also reports that many global nutrition efforts focus on providing a certain number of calories and effectively provide ‘starchy staples’ instead of more nutritious, nutrient dense foods.

Within all of this, the urban poor seem to carry a particularly heavy burden. They face high food prices and they don’t have easy, nearby access to food shops. The foods that are affordable and available are typically the foods with low nutritional value. While they have access to informal markets for fresh and affordable produce, these foods often carry diseases. According to AgriLinks, more than 80% of the animal products in poor countries is sold in informal markets and these products are significant sources of biological and chemical hazards that can cause sickness and death.

Nutritious, safe food through the informal economy

A possible way to address this complex problem is to use the informal economy to provide more nutritious, and safe, food to the urban poor. Aabida Davis, a 2017 graduate of Stellenbosch University’s Masters in Sustainable Development programme presented at the Sustainability Institute, focused her master’s research on the topic and provides valuable insight into this possibility.

Davis wanted to understand the practicalities of promoting nutritious food through this retail avenue. Her study set up an informal food seller in the Western Cape’s largest urban township, Khayelitsha, which sold nutritious and safe, prepared meals. She worked alongside a group of young activists and local food NGOs in the township in order to harness the local knowledge in this complex environment.

Impilo Market, as it was called, took place three times and sold a variety of healthy and affordable cooked foods. These included wild food soup (made from edible, indigenous plants) at R5 a cup, roasted corn for R10, samp and chicken stew for R20, vegetarian pizzas for R20 each, and ‘imfino, pap en pens’, which translates into leafy greens, traditional maize porridge, and stomach intestines. The fat was removed to make it healthier. This cost R10 for a small portion and R20 for a large portion. Impilo Market also sold fresh vegetable bunches at R20 per bunch and seedlings for R10-R12.

Positive outcomes of Impilo Market and future potential

Impilo Market was a great success and the amount of people who attended and enjoyed nutritious meals increased with every event. Furthermore, it provided the vendors with a small additional income and gave them opportunity to interact and collaborate with like-minded individuals in the area who are also motivated to promote nutrition in the townships. Impilo Market also served as a space to educate residents about the importance of eating healthy. Davis believes that Impilo Market could be used as a model for other markets in the many other low-income communities in South Africa where access to healthy food is scarce or too expensive. However, further research on the financial feasibility of such markets is needed.

Aabida explains where Impilo Market is today: “Impilo Market continued to operate after my fieldwork ended. However, organising a market takes a considerable amount of time, effort and resources. The local organisers decided to refocus their effort onto growing their urban food garden in Khayelitsha and their local tourism business. Having said that, I recently got a call from them as a funding opportunity arose and there is a potential for the market to start again.”

Potential of grassroots activism

An article on Thought Works describes grassroots activism as follows:

“Grassroots activism is about mobilising a group of people, who are passionate about a cause and harnessing the power of their conviction to push for a different outcome. This kind of movement relies on individuals who are willing to drive the change that they are concerned about from the ground-up.”

While it has many challenges, change can happen from the ground up. Impilo Market is a striking example. Davis concludes that there exists great potential for change found in grassroots initiatives like Impilo Market. While national and international-scale initiatives for food security, food safety and nutrition are vital in order to create balance in our food system once more, there lies exciting potential in small, local markets in the townships educating the urban poor about the importance of nutrition and giving them access to the foods they need to thrive.

This article is inspired by a master’s thesis completed by Aabida Davis in 2017. Aabida has a Master’s in Sustainable Development and a Bachelor’s in Environmental Science and Economics. She is currently working in corporate as an Environmental, Social and Governance Research and Project Manager. She is deeply concerned about ensuring all voices are heard and strives to ensure that a collaborative, democratic process is followed in different spaces.

To view Aabida’s thesis, please click here.