Harnessing markets for improved nutrition

Credit: M.Mitchell/IFPRI 2016

Hunger and undernutrition are long standing problems that are difficult to address in Malawi. Can markets be leveraged­—linking producers to consumers and delivering nutrient-dense food—to improve nutrition and food security, especially of the poor? Preliminary results from a recent study, “Harnessing markets for improved nutrition: A Case Study of Zomba,” were presented by Noora-Lisa Aberman (IFPRI) along with co-authors Aulo Gelli (IFPRI), Jason Donovan (ICRAF), Amy Margolies (JHU).

The study uses a value chain framework to examine the entry points for interventions in food systems that have the potential to achieve improved diets. This approach uses four diagnostic steps:

    1. Understanding the nutrition problem
    2. Examining the macro-level food systems context (the enabling environment )
    3. Characterizing diet patterns and relative contribution of different crops/missing foods, contaminated foods, etc.;
    4. Identifying value chain constraints and opportunities related to nutrition and food security.

A typology based on the variation in supply and demand can be used to examine constraints in different value chains for foods that are important to the diets of target populations.

Results from a large-scale household survey show that nutrient availability is very low, especially for the poorest households. The lowest quintile consumes about 40% the amount of food that the richest quintile consumes pre-lean season. Insights from in-depth interviews suggest that having a diverse diet is highly valued. However, a “maize-first” preference combines with affordability and availability to hamper diet diversity, particularly during the lean season. Deprivation is gauged in terms of maize access. Other nutritious foods are limited: for instance, pulses are commonly used as a store of value to be sold when maize stocks run out, meat is rarely eaten due to financial limitations and sharing norms, and vegetable and fruit availability is highly seasonal.

While most famers do engage in markets in terms of petty trading, poor households knowingly adopt less advantageous market strategies to fill food needs during the lean season. These strategies are usually related to selling produce or livestock when prices are extremely low.

Six nutritious foods that are already produced and consumed in the target populations were prioritized for market analysis, including: leafy greens, dried fish, beans and peas, avocado, live chicken, and groundnuts. Generally value chains are simple and localized, with little value addition and few value chain actors involved. The figure below provides a snapshot of the market analysis results utilizing a supply-demand typology.


Quadrant B: High demand & inadequate supply

Beans & legumes are consumed in low volumes. Preferred food but production and productivity is low.

Quadrant A: High demand & adequate supply

Groundnuts are consumed throughout the year but high levels of aflatoxin contamination is a major health risk.

Quadrant D: Low demand & inadequate supply

Nutritious fruits (e.g. mangoes and avocados) are not consumed in significant amounts throughout the year due to high seasonality and low willingness to pay.

Quadrant C: Low demand & adequate supply

Animal source foods (esp. dried fish) / Leafy greens: Available but consumption is sub-optimal due to affordability; and leafy green highly available only in the lean season when effective demand is low.


The combined results of this study indicate a need for a layered approach to addressing food insecurity and undernutrition, with different interventions for different seasons. For instance, nutrition education in the lean season will not be highly effective, as households have little room to maneuver, but could be effective outside of the lean season. In addition, subsidies to promote the consumption of underutilized highly nutrition foods can simultaneously address supply and demand issues. For instance, lean season vouchers for leafy greens address affordability as few households have the budget to purchase them while they are in season, provides a market and income for producers, and improves the diets of those receiving the vouchers.

For more information on the Value Chains for Nutrition Framework, see related publication, “Value chains and nutrition: A framework to support the identification, design, and evaluation of interventions.”

*This study was implemented by IFPRI in partnership with WFP-Malawi, IMMANA-LCIRAH (Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health), ICRAF-Peru (World Agroforesry Centre), USAID-Malawi, and Save the Children-Malawi.