Empty Grocery Aisles and an Introduction to Nairobi’s Food System

My first day in Nairobi three weeks ago included meetings, errands, and getting to know a small part of Nairobi with my fellow interns Chelsea and Karl. In search of some basic groceries, we decided to check out supermarket giant Nakumatt while visiting a local shopping centre. One of the largest and most wide-spread supermarket chains in East Africa, we expected to find a modest selection of staples and produce. To our surprise, the deli section contained just one small item for sale and the produce racks contained few selections besides multiple racks of garlic.

Nervously wondering how we were going to cook for ourselves on little more than some dry spaghetti noodles and a jar of strawberry jam, we left the supermarket in a state of shock and confusion. Knowing that our research projects are centred around understanding urban food systems in East Africa, I was especially interested in the shortage of fresh food filling the aisles of the supermarket. It was not until later that day that we learned that this is a common trend across Nakumatt stores, with some stores at risk of closing. As it turns out, the chain carries a massive debt has left many of its suppliers to withhold products, leaving some shelves bare.

As a part of our work with the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University, Karl and I are working with research that has been collected over the past few years to examine the fragility of Nairobi’s food system. Unlike the familiar dominance of grocery store chains in North America, popular points of purchase in Nairobi come in a many different styles, from small food stalls and street vendors, to large open markets, to the more formalized supermarkets and hypermarkets. The research collected from household, market, supermarket, and urban farmer surveys can be used to paint a larger picture of this complexsystem, including where Nairobi’s food comes from, where it is sold, where it is consumed, and how it is transported.

Since our first shopping trip at Nakumatt, we have been able to visit both formal and informal markets for our weekly grocery shops. My favourite stop so far for fresh produce has been the City Park Market, located just across the street from the EAI office. The extensive rows of stalls host numerous vendors selling a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains sold in bulk, without any packaging or extra bags. As we have navigated the first few weeks of living and working in Nairobi, food has been something that we are always able to connect to people over. I am looking forward to many more meals, work days, and field trips in the coming weeks as we seek to better understand the systems and policies that contribute to food security in developing cities.

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