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Students set out to strengthen Malawi's informal food sector

Published: Wednesday, 05 Jul 2017
Author: Lizzy LaFave
Department: Global Center for Food Systems Innovation

Spartans pursuing degrees in engineering, public health, agricultural economics, and other fields are gearing up for two weeks of action research in Malawi, the "Warm Heart of Africa." The hands-on work is a key part of the third annual Frugal Innovation Practicum, and gives students the opportunity to apply what they've learned about solving food systems challenges. Offered through Michigan State University's Global Center for Food Systems Innovation, the practicum includes classroom instruction and local outings to prepare students for taking an active role in the bustling markets of Lilongwe.

When they arrive in Malawi this August, eight MSU students will meet with their counterparts from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Together they will spend a couple weeks in two urban food markets, Mitundu and Area 36, consulting with local retailers, market committee members and the Lilongwe City Council. Working in teams, student groups will first identify priority needs and then propose feasible and affordable (or, frugal) solutions to challenges facing market vendors.

Hosted by Dr. Stephanie White, GCFSI's City-Regional Food Systems Lead, this summer marks the third year of the practicum, which has a track record of improving the working conditions for food retailers in a handful open-air markets in Malawi's capital city.

"The goal for this year is to map the food exchange system in two of Lilongwe's markets using the innovation systems framework," said White, referring to the framework developed by Marko Hekkert, of Utrecht University, and his colleagues, published in 2007. "We're adapting it to the context. In a conversation with (Hekkert), he encouraged that. By using the framework, which focuses on actual practice in the market, students will identify areas where practical, inexpensive, and locally appropriate interventions can improve the food exchange system in ways that benefit the largest number of retailers and consumers," White said. 

With 20 years of urban food systems research under her belt and 10 years of field work experience, White recognizes that making a real difference in an urban food system takes time.

In 2015, when the Frugal Innovation Practicum (FIP) launched, students identified key issues within Lilongwe's local markets, including poor sanitation and infrastructure, lack of light and security at night, lack of access to capital, and a lack of communication between vendors and the local government. The students then presented to the Lilongwe City Council on how transforming these aspects would foster economic growth for the markets.

While a connection between city officials and market committee members was initiated, and issues were discussed, the necessary changes were not immediately implemented. White said this is when the program evolved into a multi-year project in which students build upon the work of prior years, with the shared goal of enabling locally-led innovation within Malawi's urban food system.

"That is just sort of what needed to happen," White said. "I wouldn't have said that in the beginning but it evolved into a necessary quality."

FIP 2015 participant Trish Abalo raised $1,200 so future student innovations could be implemented in the markets. This donation spurred a crowdfunding campaign that contributed another $1,600 to the pot. The money allowed FIP 2016 students to implement small-scale designs that improved the sanitation and safety of informal markets in Lilongwe.

Now, the FIP is working to crowdsource $2,500 to provide the students of FIP 2017 with funds to make infrastructure improvements in Mitundu and Area 36 markets.

Show your support for innovation and donate to the CrowdPower campaign.

While not as tangible or immediate as installing a toilet or a water tap, one of the greatest impacts the students continue to make in Malawi is to help foster a connection between market communities and the municipality.

"Through the efforts of the students, with their final presentations (to Lilongwe City Council) and the learning they're able to do over the period of two weeks, they're able to connect the dots for the municipality and have them really understand what's going on in the market," White said. "That fracture (between the vendors and the city) was so evident, and was really underlying a lot of issues in the market."

The field-work portion of the two-month practicum takes place August 4 to August 18. A week later, on August 24, students will present at MSU on their research findings and their experience learning abroad. 


Housed within MSU's department of International Studies and Programs, the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation addresses critical pressures on the world's food supply by creating, testing and enabling the scaling of solutions. GCFSI takes a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses the entire food system and considers major environmental, economic and social trends, as well as workforce development needs that will impact future food security. Launched in 2012, GCFSI is one of eight development labs established through the Higher Education Solutions Network of the United States Agency for International Development.