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Need to use the bathroom at work? Lilongwe's female vendors think twice

Published: Monday, 26 Feb 2018
Author: Lizzy LaFave
Department: Global Center for Food Systems Innovation

Women farmers and entrepreneurs in Malawi experience more limitations than their male counterparts, researchers say.

Students in the 2017 Frugal Innovation Practicum (FIP) interviewed vendors at Mitundu market to learn about issues they face that affect their businesses and ability to put food on the table. The practicum is hosted in Lilongwe, Malawi.

"The kinds of support vendors have in markets will help them sell their food, which helps them to be profitable," said Dr. White, FIP Program Director and City-Regional Food Systems Lead at Michigan State University's Global Center for Food Systems Innovations.

This support can come in a variety of forms, but one that is often overlooked is a safe bathroom, White said.

"It is common to go around a whole open market like the one at Mitundu and not find a single bathroom," said Dr. Judith Kamoto, a senior lecturer at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, a key institutional partner in the FIP.

The lack of facilities places a burden on women in particular because it is socially acceptable for men to urinate in the open, said Kamoto.

"They don't care whether someone is seeing them, but women would think twice about it. They (Women) would say okay, I am not going to do any business at that market."

Hilda Tabulo has been a produce vendor at Mitundu market since 2011. She said at one point the market had a free bathroom facility, but it was dirty because nobody was paid to clean it. Now, the facility is clean but costs 50 kwacha per use, a fee instated by the private company hired to manage the upkeep.

"If I go to the bathroom four times," Tabulo said, "that costs 200 kwacha per day."

This is a cost that many men do not pay, Kamoto said.

Watch a video of Hilda Tabulo in Mitundu market.

Tabulo said that the costs she faces in the market because she is a woman inhibit her from the same profitability male vendors receive. To even the playing field, Tabulo said the toilets should be free, especially since all vendors already pay a daily market fee of 150 kwacha to the market committee.

Rather than continue with the private cleaning company, Tabulo said, "They [the market committee] should employ a worker and the committee should be paying that worker. That worker should be cleaning the toilets."

Bathrooms are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of barriers to growth that women working in food systems face. 

"As you go up the value chain, along the way you see women begin to lose control," Kamoto said. Men are the primary decision makers throughout the food system and make many decisions that disadvantage women, she said.

The Frugal Innovation Practicum works to find solutions for problems identified by researchers and vendors. The innovation needed is usually not a shiny piece of technology, White said, but something that may take more time. This could be patching communication networks or initiating structural change suggested by local vendors and researchers.

So, what's the hold up?

Although the practicum has been working in Lilongwe markets since 2015, students are only on the ground for two weeks out of the year.

White said she would like to integrate FIP into a larger program that focuses on sustained engagement.

"The first step is to create a strategic and collaborative planning committee with our partners from LUANAR that brings food system stakeholders in Malawi together for long-term planning that would benefit food-based livelihoods and food security in the region," she said.

Following that, it will be a matter of identifying grants and rallying support for the topic, she said.

If you are looking to get involved or support the program in any way, White is available at whites25(at)


Housed within MSU's International Studies and Programs unit, 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.