27 July 2015 – Shelf Life – the growth of African supermarkets and the urban poor

There is an article in the UK’s Financial Times (July 25, written by Andrew England) about the growth and impact of supermarkets in Africa. It provides a good contrast between pristine supermarket shelves where middle-class customers shop for an array of goods that stretch from Swiss chocolate to nappies, rice and sacks of maize meal, to the scene outside where young men sell tomatoes and onions for five kwacha a kilo (approximately 40 pence in the UK) and women sit on the tarmac selling avocados and dried kapenta fish (a type of sardine). He notes, ‘it is, in miniature, a scene typical of the street-side bustle that has long been the African shopping experience.’

Andrew Young writes about Lusaka, Zambia where the supermarket phenomenon is growing but notes this is also a trend in many other African countries. He talks to supermarket shoppers who rarely go to the huge open-air market, consider the supermarket a symbol of development and who ‘don’t want to go backwards’. Other say that the ability to shop in the malls is an indication of status and if you do shop on the street, you don’t want others to know about it. Young  also talks to retailers  from Pick n Pay and Shoprite  who are up-beat about  growth potential in African markets but also notes how poor transportation and bureaucracy and corruption at border crossings leads to shortages – and panic buying by consumers.

Perhaps Andrew Young’s most telling comment is when he returns to the informal street markets where the vast majority of Africans continue to shop and don’t have the money to shop in supermarkets. He quotes Richard Brasher, a former chief executive of Tesco’s UK operations and now running Pick n Pay, “I can go from the most sophisticated first-world feel to a century back in the space of 50 miles. Half my customers go to bed at night not having eaten enough and some go to bed probably having eaten too much.’

The article graphically demonstrates the tension between traditional and modernized food systems in Africa with the  growth of supermarkets and shopping malls servicing the growing middle class and a youthful, urbanizing population – but with the vast majority left outside on the pavement, struggling to make a living.  It also underlines issues previously raised in this blog. The first touches on the impact on traditional diets where rising per capita incomes and urbanization increases middle-class Africans’ consumption of meat and dairy (see 3 July 2015). The second is about the affect on diets of those on low-incomes and living in poverty as informal food traders and the informal food economy comes under threat from city policies to move  traders out of inner cities (see the case of Cape Town, South Africa – 6 May 2015).

Given all the known problems associated with large-scale food production and distribution one has to question how the growth of supermarkets will feed the urban poor and undernourished.  Traditional food systems must be supported to counter inequalities in food distribution and provide affordable access to fresh food for the majority.


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