Women in the market (fruit products)

The missing middle of the farm-to-fork journey

According to a World Health Organization (WHO) study, the health burden of foodborne diseases is comparable to that of the ‘Big Three’ infectious diseases (malaria, HIV-AIDS, and tuberculosis). Moreover, the great majority of this burden is borne by those who can least afford it: poor people in developing countries who rely on traditional food systems. Another study (for which the International Livestock Research Institute [ILRI] was a partner) found that unsafe food cost low- and middle-income countries(LMICs) a combined total of more than USD100 billion yearly. But until recently, donor investments in food safety have been too low, too late and spent mainly on problems that little benefit the health of the poor – as shown by several studies that ILRI contributed to, which evaluated food safety development interventions in Africa. 

We do not yet know how best to manage the problem of foodborne disease and its impacts on people in poverty. Most of the last decade’s efforts have – understandably – centred on understanding and describing the issues at play; now, the focus is shifting to finding solutions. To meet this challenge, ILRI and partners are managing a portfolio of projects in Africa and Asia that aim to improve food safety of highly nutritious but highly risky foods sold in informal markets: they cover milk in Kenya, tomatoes in Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, meat in Uganda and Kenya, dairy and pork in India, chicken and pork in Cambodia, and chicken in Vietnam. 

Unlike earlier projects which focused on either end of the food chain – the farm and household – many of these projects address food sellers, the ‘missing middle’ in the farm-to-fork value chain. This new emphasis owes much to our earlier research, which found that informal markets were a neglected but natural point to leverage safe food value chains.

The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the eating. With a new generation of market-based interventions underway and/or recently completed, an opportunity has arisen to compare and assess these interventions to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why ­– and to develop actionable evidence for those who care about food safety in developing countries.

Himadri Pal is pursuing her PhD research at the Natural Resources Institute (NRI), United Kingdom (UK), with support from the One Health Research, Education and Outreach Centre in Africa at ILRI. As part of her studies, she is evaluating a large, market-based intervention in Birnin Kebbi, Kebbi State, Nigeria. The project, led by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), will use four strategies to promote food safety: training and branding for market sellers; an information stand for market users; a radio program for consumers and sellers; and a food festival. While the project monitors implementation and behaviour change, the researchers will complement this by assessing changes in hazard and risk.

Returning from her first trip to the project site, Pal saw that markets have the power to enhance or reduce the safety of the food they sell. Vendors play an extensive role in the supply chain; hence, focusing on markets can impact the chain from both supply and demand sides. Additionally, to generate a demonstrable impact on food safety risks, multiple food categories, including meats, vegetables, fruits and ready-to-eat, may need to be addressed.

This three-way partnership between ILRI, NRI and GAIN will allow independent evaluation of one of the largest, newest and best evidence-grounded of a new generation of market-based interventions in informal markets.

The research team listening to a participant during focus group discussion in Kebbi, Nigeria (photo credit: ILRI).


Read more on food safety work at ILRI


Himadri Pal is a PhD student supported by NRI’s Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (FaNSI) and the One Health Research, Education and Outreach Centre in Africa.

Florence Mutua is a scientist at ILRI’s Animal and Human Health program.

Delia Grace is a contributing scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Kenya, and professor of food safety systems at the Natural Resources Institute (NRI), University of Greenwich, in the UK.