Does Increased Market Access Mean Better Nutrition?

Efforts to increase rural incomes and reduce rural poverty in developing countries often focus on policies to lower transport costs and increase market access among poor and remote rural populations. Despite the growing importance of such policies, however, it is not entirely clear to what extent and through which channels increased market access impacts rural individuals’ and households’ nutrition outcomes and overall wellbeing. A recent paper published in World Development seeks to answer these questions in the context of rural Ethiopia.

“Market Access, Well-being, and Nutrition: Evidence from Ethiopia” utilizes a unique dataset collected in November-December 2011 in the remote Afela woreda in northwestern Ethiopia. The study estimates how a range of measures of household and individual wellbeing react to the presence or absence of rural feeder roads; the indicators examined include: household consumption, education, food security, dietary diversity, and mother and child nutrition outcomes. The study also examines the pathways through which access to, or lack of access to, markets relates to these measures.

The region of study was chosen specifically because it is characterized by similar physical and climatic conditions but varying transport costs, thus enabling the study authors to address the problem of causation. The study area centers on the market town of Atsedemariam, which connects to Gondar, a major metropolitan area to the northeast, by way of a gravel road; this road is passable all year round and is frequented regularly by trucks. Communities to the west of Atsedemariam generally trade only with that town, as difficult terrain and poor road infrastructure prevents them from reaching many other outside markets; from these communities, transport of both agricultural output to Atsedemariam and agricultural inputs and consumer goods from Atsedemariam generally occurs by foot traffic, donkeys, and some motorcycles. Farmers in these communities get much of their modern agricultural inputs from the Atsedemariam cooperative office.

In total, 850 households in a series of seven sub-districts along the route through Atsedemariam were interviewed; these households were broken down equally into five distance brackets, measured in travel time by donkey. A community questionnaire was also completed by the survey team based on interviewed with community leaders in the study villages; the information collected in this questionnaire included access to services, infrastructure, and seasonal prices for important food and non-food items.

The results show that access to roads and markets is positively associated with household wellbeing and nutrition. Households in more remote communities to the west of Atsedemariam consume significantly less (55 percent less) than households closer to the market; the majority of this lower consumption is composed of food. In addition, more remote households have less diverse diets and are overall more food-insecure. School enrollment rates for more remote households is also lower, by 25 percent, than for households located closer to roads.

The authors argue that part of the observed differences in wellbeing can be attributed to lower agricultural production in remote areas. This lower production is a result of reduced use of modern inputs resulting from the higher transport costs faced in these areas. The authors determined that for the most remote households in the study area, the chemical fertilizer value-cost ratio falls by over 25 percent for several major crops, including millet, sorghum, and teff. This translates to a 30 percent reduction in fertilizer use by these households.

In addition, households’ terms of trade also play a role in the observed effects on wellbeing. In the most remote survey areas, farmers market 50 less agricultural surplus and acquire 60 percent less food in the market; this lowers both their overall consumption and their overall dietary diversity compared to less remote households.

However, while households closer to roads and markets have healthier diets and higher consumption, this has not necessarily translated into better nutrition outcomes. There was no significant difference found in mother and child anthropometric measures, such as height and weight, between more and less remote households. The authors suggest that this result could be due to overall low levels of dietary diversity, even in households with better market access, as well as from limited access to clean drinking water and health services throughout the region. Thus, while market access does play an important role in rural wellbeing, other factors also impact rural nutrition outcomes. Policies aimed at improving nutrition and wellbeing in remote areas should focus on improving nutritional education and health services in these regions, in addition to improving road infrastructure and increasing market access.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Bill Murphy