Africa’s supermarket sweepstakes

The supermarket revolution is sweeping across Africa, transforming everything from the way people eat to the crops farmers grow. Is this good news for the continent’s poor? That’s the question posed by the latest “Food for 9 Billion” segment airing today on American Public Media’s Marketplace.

American, European and African-owned supermarkets are spreading quickly across Africa. This store in Zambia is part of South Africa’s Pick n Pay chain. Photo by Gretchen L. Wilson/Homelands Productions

For urban consumers, supermarkets are convenient, clean and cheap. They offer fresh and packaged food from around the world at any time of year, often at prices that rival those of open-air markets. While their appeal is especially strong among the middle and upper classes, they’re increasingly popular with low-income shoppers.

The calculus is different for small-scale farmers, who still make up the majority of Africa’s poor. For some, supermarkets represent a golden opportunity, offering higher prices and better terms than traditional buyers. But for others, particularly poorer farmers in more remote areas, supermarkets aren’t just out of reach—they pose an existential threat. Ditto for market vendors, small-time transporters and millions of others in the informal food economy.

Many development specialists and government officials hope that supermarkets will help make Africa’s food systems more productive and efficient. By spurring investment in agriculture and rural infrastructure, the thinking goes, foreign chains will more than offset the profits they send back home. But others worry that big companies will squeeze out smaller local suppliers, undercutting Africa’s most important economic sector. And while supermarkets offer consumers exciting new choices, they tend to reduce diversity of both diets and ecosystems, and to encourage the consumption of unhealthy processed foods.

In today’s story, Gretchen Wilson travels to Zambia, where a strong farmers’ union and government regulations have helped ensure that foreign-owned supermarkets source much of their produce from local suppliers. Then she visits the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, where farmers enjoy no such protection and many are finding it hard to compete with industrial farms and large food processors from South Africa and beyond.

Also, check out Gretchen’s blog post about the many other challenges farmers face in southern Africa.