Two sides of the same coin

Two sides of the same coin

Where were you on Wednesday 23 May 2007? You might not remember, but it is estimated that on this date, we passed a major demographic milestone, also referred to as the start of the “Urban Millennium”, when the world’s population became more urban than rural. Were urban policy makers too worried about the future to throw a party and therefore kept silent? Personally, I was living in the city of Kathmandu at that time and like most of my SNV colleagues, all my work was focused on rural environments. A decade later, the urban context is clearly on our agenda but I notice an interesting divergence amongst my colleagues.

In rural contexts, value chain advisors and nutrition advisors move around in the same communities, working with the same people and we debate over whether horticulture should primarily be used for home consumption, or primarily for income and then for consumption. When we travel to the city, on the other hand, our paths split. We head in different directions, focussing on different targets.

The nutrition experts head straight for the slums. Although urban children have a better nutritional status than their rural counterparts, their numbers are growing fast. The UN projects that by 2020 around 1.4 billion people will be living in slums, up from 1 billion in 2016. And my nutrition colleagues are determined to reach these people. Where can we meet mothers and children on regular basis to raise awareness on nutritious food, cooking practices and eating habits? How can we make the link to improved sanitation and hygiene? In Nairobi, we can work via religious institutions or schools. In Bangladesh, the garment industry, with millions of female workers, seems a better window.

And where are my value chain colleagues and I heading? We go in a different direction. We seek out buyers and owners of supermarkets and restaurant chains who want to invest in safe food, following the mantra: if there is a market, change will happen.

Pesticides cause an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year, almost all of them in developing countries. Data on long term impacts are hard to get. Although the answer for reduced and responsible use of pesticides (Integrated Pest Management) was developed in the 1950s, its implementation has been an upward battle. Pesticide costs could be lowered by a further 40% if applied properly. This requires sustained behaviour change and capacity building of smallholder farmers.

field work in cambodia. woman is sitting near a basket with crops

Some producers are able to export fruits and vegetables to markets in developed countries that require strict food safety standards, clearly showing the link between demand and food safety. But 98% of fresh fruits and vegetables stays in domestic markets with lower standards. These markets involve numerous bigger and smaller traders, creating a layered network that is very difficult to influence. But a growing group of urban middle class consumers in domestic markets are worried about food safety; “Cook it well, more of the chemicals will get destroyed”, and gone is my appetite for fresh vegetables.

But with this increased demand, bright examples are appearing. In Kenya my colleagues report on supermarkets and their suppliers who want to have short, controlled supply chains. Agronomists can advise on the use of pesticides, but also influence quality and reliable supply. Deals are made. Colleagues in Bangladesh are working with the large processing industry. They increasingly want safe supplies, also eyeing international markets for mango juice and tomato ketchup. Setting food safety standards (e.g. good agricultural practices) for the farmers involved will also influence the supply to local fresh markets.

Have all discussions stopped, now that our paths have split? Luckily not. We keep reminding each other that nutritional value and food safety are two sides of the same coin. You can’t advise mothers to make sure their children should finish their vegetables, if the white spots on the kale remind you of the pesticides that have been used. Nutrition experts involve us when they think about the ‘last mile’ of the value chain, into the slum. We are also testing whether our proven ‘Super mom’ and ‘Super dad’ behaviour change concepts appeal to urban consumers. SNV undertook a study to highlight the life of slum dwellers in Bangladesh, Kenya and Ghana to find opportunities for interventions. Value chain advisors now include urban consumers in their project design and we pilot traceability tools to enhance food safety. Recently, SNV’s first urban youth employment project kicked off: increased income certainly is part of the solution both for food safety and nutrition matters.

Bringing our understanding of food systems alive in project that address all these elements (i.e. nutrition practices, food safety, food availability and affordability), to achieve improved food safety and nutrition for both rural and urban consumers, to realise SDG2, is challenging and exciting for both my colleagues and myself.