Supermarket Food Supply Chain Systems in Nairobi: Where Does Your Food Come From?

Lisa and I (Jeremy) are kick-starting a research project with the East African Institute of Aga Khan University in Nairobi. The following is a concept note I created that will help guide our inquiry into supermarket supply chain systems and customer purchasing habits.


Supermarket economies are proliferating in East Africa, but the extent to which food supply chain systems are changing is questionable. Despite supermarkets being an indicator of food system formalization, growth and development within the region’s agriculture sector has been disappointing. Over 70 percent of Kenyans directly rely on the agriculture sector for their livelihoods and nearly half of Kenya’s total agricultural output is non-marketed subsistence production. While modern food retailing may be changing the ways in which some people access food, the supply chain system preceding consumption may only be old systems procuring to new retail spaces. Informal food procurement systems in East Africa are characterized by a long and inefficient line of stakeholders that provide few market options for farmers, thereby keeping farmgate food product pricing low. As a result, farmers lack the capital to invest in their agriculture enterprise.

Kenya was the first country in the region to have experienced the proliferation of modern food retailing within urban centres and many of these supermarkets are expanding into regional countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. If successful outlets such as Nakumatt, Naivas, Tusky’s, and Uchumi have the capacity to streamline their procurement processes into efficient supply chain systems, they could provide market alternatives at the farmgate and stimulate the agricultural sector by creating incentive for capital investment. This would have positive implications for food security and poverty alleviation in some of the most economically marginalized communities in East Africa. Improving access to markets for farmers must be a critical element of any strategy to enable them to enhance their food security and increase their incomes.

There are immense challenges to agricultural growth within East Africa. Policy needs to focus more on agriculture, and recognize and address the diversity of institutional, trade, technological and governance challenges to poverty-reducing growth in Kenya and East Africa. As part of this challenge, both supermarkets and consumers have a role to play. This research project will examine current supermarket food procurement practices in Nairobi, packaging and value adding processes within their food supply chain systems, and the impending consequences on county, country, and regional food security and poverty reduction. Further, Lisa and I (Jeremy) will be creating an online consumer survey that probes into the purchasing habits of Nairobi citizens, the reasons for which they purchase food at certain markets and not others, and their awareness of the food systems in which they participate.

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