Good Food for Cities

Mbale: upgrading its traditional markets for a better food future

September 27, 2023
Selene Casanova
International communications

Whenever I ask my mother what she spent the day doing, her answer is either “nothing” or “I went to the market for a stroll”. Now in her 60s, she describes herself as an “expert” of the Oriental Market. This traditional market in Nicaragua covers an area of 84 hectares. Today, it is one of the largest open-air markets in Central America.

Ever since I was a little girl, I used to go with her to the Oriental Market. It was not always pleasant. The chaos and the dirt, the risk of being mugged and even the harassment –whether you were a vendor or a customer – were secondary because we could find everything there at an affordable price.

Traditional market in Managua, Nicaragua via Shutterstock.

For a significant part of the population in low-income economies like Nicaragua or Uganda, 13,000km apart, traditional markets or public markets are the place to go to meet basic needs such as food and clothing. In my experience in Nicaragua, the risk of food in these markets being unsafe is almost part of the deal –the food is often “so cheap”, so expecting it to be safe to eat as well almost seems like too much to ask (read while raising an eyebrow).

And it is this issue that Rikolto is working on in both Nicaragua and Uganda. We bring different perspectives and backgrounds - from farmers, government agencies, research institutions and more - around the premise that unsafe food should not be the standard. That everyone, including my mother, should have access to affordable food that also meets the nutritional requirements for a healthy life.

Changing the “food game” in Mbale

Let me move on from my home city of Managua in Nicaragua to Mbale. In this Ugandan town with a population of 96,189 (2014 census), Rikolto is testing a model to incentivise access to safe, sustainable food for urban dwellers in traditional markets.

Road into Mbale city, Uganda via Shutterstock.

Food safety is a growing concern in the country. In August 2023 the Ministry of Health confirmed that 1.3 million Ugandans are diagnosed with food-borne illnesses every year.

In 2020, Rikolto commissioned a food risk study that found high levels of contamination in fruits and vegetables at various food outlets in the city, including public markets. The study also showed that 71% of supply chain actors were familiar with food safety concepts, but this was not translating into practice, says Peter Businda, Rikolto’s project coordinator in Uganda.

Peter is co-facilitating the implementation of the model in Mbale’s Central Market. The project was launched in 2022 in partnership with the consumer rights association CONSENT, alongside the Food Rights Alliance (FRA) and the City Council of Mbale via its Production and Marketing department.

The model sets out interventions to drive change in three pillars of the food system: sustainable food production, inclusive markets that deliver benefits for farmers, food vendors and consumers, and an enabling environment that creates the conditions for the model to be scaled up in more markets.

Mbale’s Central Market/ Picture by Peter Businda, Rikolto.

Motivated farmers: everything begins and ends with the soil

Safe and nutritious vegetables come from healthy soils and ecosystems. That’s why Rikolto and its partners work with groups of urban, peri-urban and rural farmers who supply fruit and vegetables to the market. The focus is on encouraging the adoption of good agricultural practices and regenerative agriculture from the farm gate. This has already shown some results:

  • We’ve partnered with the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) and Holland GreenTech (HGT) to organise training sessions with the farmers’ groups. The sessions include sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) practices, regenerative agricultural techniques such as integrated pest management, mulching, vermicomposting, crop rotation, intercropping, sustainable soil and water management, and human nutrition.
  • Rikolto has also facilitated training in quality management systems as a step towards implementing a traceability system to ensure food safety practices, also from farm to vendor.
  • Through HGT and other agricultural input suppliers, we’ve provided urban farmers with access to high quality seeds and farm equipment.
  • Also, until recently, the farmers struggled to access quality inputs and often resorted to buying counterfeit seeds that lower the quality of their crops. To solve this, we’re piloting a retail model: input suppliers work directly with farmer leaders, who are linked to farmer groups. With this approach, we aim to give producers the agency they need to organise bulk purchases of genuine, high-quality inputs.

In total, 863 urban and peri-urban farmers in Mbale and 1,400 rural farmers from two cooperatives have adopted regenerative agriculture and good agricultural practices. After just one year, there has been a 40% increase in the volume of fruits and vegetables produced using these methods and delivered to vendors in the Mbale market. This increase is due to improved inputs, consistent support from extension services and diversification into new crops such as vegetables, according to Peter.

Vendor in Mbale’s Central Market. Picture by Peter Businda/Rikolto.

Inclusive markets: a closer look

My mother, like many, I suspect, keeps visiting the Oriental Market for its affordable prices on fruit and vegetables. Vendors enthusiastically entice you into their stalls, offering perishables at bargain prices. However, this has an impact on their profits, their purchasing power and the livelihoods of the farmers who supply them. Also, unsold produce often ends up becoming waste because of poor market hygiene.

To break this cycle, consumers need incentives to purchase healthy food, which will boost demand and improve sellers’ and farmers’ incomes.

The ideal situation is that with more income, farmers can actually invest in high quality seeds, for example, and in more sustainable practices overall. The model has made progress in this direction:

  • In Mbale’s central market, Rikolto and its partners initiated a series of meetings and workshops with the market management authorities and vendors. These workshops, attended by 280 vendors, covered topics such as improved stock management, safe food handling, customer relations, product display, record keeping and financial management.
  • We also made improvements to 75 fruit and vegetable stalls. These improvements not only transformed the appearance of the market, but also attracted more customers and provided an incentive to reduce the waste generated by vendors’ excess produce.

“The vendors were involved in the design of the food stalls. They wanted supermarket-style stalls with vertical layouts so that more products could be displayed. Storage compartments underneath provided a place to keep produce and facilitated customer interaction,”

Peter Businda - Rikolto's project coordinator in Uganda.

  • In July 2023, we launched a competition among food vendors. Mbale central market consumers and independent auditors selected the vendors who best promoted food safety practices. The contest assessed personal hygiene, stand cleanliness, product safety, customer service, market hygiene and sanitary conditions.
Launch of the safe food handling competition in the Mbale Central Market/ Picture by Peter Businda, Rikolto.

Nagudi Aisha, a vendor at the market, described the process:

“Before the project started, the situation in the market was so chaotic, with uneven stalls, poor hygiene throughout the market, congestion with limited walking space for our customers, poor display of products, and no customer care to attract more consumers to our stalls, which contributed to the high perishability of our fruits and vegetables...”

He also shared his enthusiasm for the safe food handling competition: “It was my favourite part because it kept us all on our toes. Everything we learned in the training sessions was put to the test. These events attracted more customers to my stall than ever before. Even though I didn’t win the prize, I have no regrets because the competition brought more customers to my stall, and I saw a significant increase in sales.”

Enabling adoption and replication: multi-stakeholder engagement

The scaling up of the model is enabled by the Good Food Council, which was established in 2022 by Rikolto in partnership with FRA, CONSENT and the Mbale City Council. This central coordinating body brings together the diverse perspectives of the project’s stakeholders and plays a key role in defining the responsibilities of each partner.

Also in July of 2023, they launched the Good Food Parliament to extend the reach of the model and promote secure access to safe and healthy food in Mbale. This group is made up of government departments from political wings relating to health, production and marketing, education and enforcement, NGOs such as Technoserve and universities. Their goal is to foster collaboration between stakeholders in the city’s food system.

Model of the pilot.

Peter outlines the next steps. The first is to understand how consumers in the Mbale market perceive the availability of safe food. This will inform subsequent strategies for Rikolto and partners, as well as spaces such as the Good Food Parliament, for increasing the demand for these products. The second step is to establish a traceability and certification system for safe vegetables in the market to increase consumer confidence.

“In the coming semester, we will continue to focus on promoting the adoption of safer and more sustainable agricultural practices among market vendors and farmers. We believe that coordination platforms such as the Good Food Parliament will play a key role in this,” concludes Peter.
Next steps in 2023 and 2024.
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As for my mother’s passion for visiting the market ... I understand her, because my mouth can’t help but water whenever I imagine myself going to that stand selling natural drinks served with ice, usually in the fruit and vegetable section of the market. The stand is always busy because it sells such a wide variety of delicious drinks. Visiting the market, full of healthy and safe food for everyone, is a right, so we invite everyone to continue to learn and share more about initiatives like this one in Mbale.

If you would like to know more about this initiative, reach out to my colleague Peter Businda, Rikolto's project coordinator in Uganda -

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