Household food security and consumption: the role of supermarkets and informal retailers 

There is growing concern around the impact of formal retailers and supermarkets on marginalised urban communities in developing countries with regard to their food security. In post-apartheid South Africa, supermarket businesses have made inroads into the township economy to capture a share of the food market which was historically served by micro-enterprises. In response to the rise of supermarkets, researchers have begun to ask questions about how formal retailers have impacted on informal food businesses as well as household food procurement decisions.

The Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF) in partnership with the Centre for Excellence (CoE) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), have undertaken an in-depth assessment of the impact of formal food retailers through a case study in Philippi East. A draft report is available here.

The research indicate that the impact of supermarkets is more nuanced than suggested in prior research. Supermarkets are the main supply of household food (in value terms), with residents spending about one third of their food purchases at one of three outlets. As a result of the location of supermarkets in shopping malls, from which informal traders are largely excluded, there is minimal direct competition between informal retailers and formal retailers in spatial terms. Residents benefit from the proximity of the three shopping centres as they are able to conduct price comparisons and vary their shopping strategies. Whereas the lowest group conduct a single monthly bulk shop, usually from one supermarket, high income groups shop more frequently from different sources.

From the perspective of informal traders, shopping malls and formal retailers both support and hinder business opportunities. The high pedestrian footfall outside the mall presents good opportunities for street traders to sell products, though the trader’s occupation of these sites is precarious in terms of land occupation and the absence of shelter. In the residential context, informal traders utilise a range of strategies (innovative, adaptive and unique) to remain an important source of food for households, ensuring that food is spatially accessible, relatively affordable and culturally responsive. Whilst seemingly sustainable against corporate encroachment, the informal food sellers do not necessarily contribute towards sustainable diets and in some aspects (such as poor hygiene and non-traceability) present a set of risks to food security.

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