Do Supermarkets Improve Rural Nutrition?

As developing country incomes rise and populations become more urbanized, food markets are seeing more demand for higher value and processed foods. At the same time, trade liberalization and increased foreign direct investment have stimulated changes in many countries’ food value chains, making it easier for modern markets to access a reliable supply of high-quality goods. These supply- and demand-side transformations have led to a strong new trend throughout developing regions – the growth of the modern supermarket.

While many studies have looked at this new trend in terms of its impact on rural economic growth and changes in urban diets, the impact of supermarkets on rural food consumption and nutrition is less well understood. To address this gap in knowledge, researchers at Georg-August-University Goettingen in Germany and Luleå University of Technology in Sweden examined the impact that the growth in supermarkets may have on the diets and nutritional status of rural farm households in Kenya. The article was published in World Development in August (and was originally put forth as a conference paper for the 2014 EAAE Conference).

Supermarkets in Kenya now account for 10 percent of the country’s grocery sales and 20 percent of food retail in major cities. The study sampled both vegetable-farming households that supply these new modern markets and vegetable-farming households that only sell through traditional marketing channels. The study households are comprised of smallholder farmers who grow both indigenous Kenyan vegetables, such as black night-shade, and more exotic vegetables, such as kale and spinach. Many of the sample households also produce staple and cash crops, like maize and coffee, and engage in small-scale livestock production.

To accurately assess each household’s diets and food consumption, interviews were conducted with the person in each household who is in control of food choices and preparation. In most cases, this person was female, even though 89 percent of the sample households were headed by men. The data collected in this interview was used to determine each household’s daily caloric consumption and daily consumption of certain key micronutrients – vitamin A, iron, and zinc.

The authors’ findings suggest that participation in supermarket channels (i.e., selling to supermarkets) has a generally positive impact on rural nutrition. The authors hypothesize that this improvement could come through two pathways. The first pathway is through improvements in household income, as households that sell to supermarkets averaged increased annual household income levels of more than 60 percent. The second pathway for nutritional improvements comes through alterations in the crops grown, as households that produce more nutrient-rich vegetables for sale also tend to consume more of those same vegetables, and thus consume more micronutrients. For example, a 10 percentage point increase in the area of land devoted to vegetable production led to a 30 percent increase in vitamin A consumption over mean consumption levels.

However, the study also finds that participation in supermarket channels has a partially negative impact on household nutrition through changes in household gender roles and decision-making responsibilities. While subsistence crop production in Africa tends to be controlled by women, men tend to take over the production of commercial cash crops; this shift in control of agricultural production often also leads to a loss of women’s bargaining power within the household. Research has shown that when women control household income, they tend to spend more on food, health, and dietary quality than men. This observation was also made in the study in Kenya.

The paper has several implications for policymakers. First, as smallholder farmers make up a large percentage of the world’s undernourished populations, linking them effectively to modern supermarket value chains could lead to both significant economic development and significant reductions in hunger and malnutrition. In order to create these effective links, however, governments will need to focus on improving rural infrastructure and institutions to make sure that smallholders have greater access to modern markets. Second, the empowerment of rural women will continue to play an important role in improving rural nutrition; programs aiming to link smallholders to markets must include aspects to ensure women’s participation and empowerment. Finally, the authors point out that further research is needed to expand these findings to locations beyond Kenya and to crops other than those studied here.

Written by Sara Gustafson, IFPRI