The Making Markets Work for Nutritious Foods Programme: It’s time to fix the information failures in our food systems

Geneva, 9 December 2020 - 

Ensuring markets provide enough nutritious and safe food to those living in poverty in low income countries is an urgent priority.

Many in such markets across the world lack access to affordable foods that are safe and rich in the nutrients needed to sustain life and livelihoods. Nutritious foods such as pulses, eggs, milk, fruit, vegetables and fish are often unavailable or, because they are expensive, may end up exceeding an already small food budget. What’s more, these foods also face tough competition from the widespread availability of highly processed tasty cheap foods that are energy dense and nutrient poor. These foods, which typically consist mostly of refined starch, oil, sugar, and salt can be detrimental to health and wellbeing and contribute to the rise of chronic and infectious diseases, putting extra pressure on already overstretched health systems.  

Markets of all kinds work poorly for various reasons. Monopolies can control market prices and supplies. Externalities can distort the true cost of consumption and production. And inequality can exclude vulnerable populations from markets.  

For nutritious food markets, these reasons are all important, but information failures are a particularly pervasive type of market failure.

The panel below provides some examples.  

Information failures which distort markets for nutritious foods 

Governments do not know enough about:
  • the benefits of investing in different parts of their food system 
  • how they are supporting/undermining companies that are producing nutritious foods.
Businesses do not know enough about:  
  • how to improve their performance in making nutritious foods more available and affordable.
  • which components of their food supply chains are malfunctioning when it comes to improving nutrition
Civil society does not:
  • adequately hold businesses to account for their nutrition commitments and performance
All stakeholders do not have:
  • easy access to high quality examples of public-private engagement aimed at making markets work better for nutritious foods 
  • enough opportunities to come together across the public-private divide to work out how to make markets work better for nutritious foods 

That is precisely why three years ago GAIN and our partners established the Making Markets Work for Nutrition programme (MMW). The MMW programme deliberately takes aim at 10 critical areas where lack of information, evidence, planning and practical ideas for action is holding us back. 

The first thing we did was commission a paper from authors at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University to test our hypothesis about information imperfections as a barrier to market functioning for nutritious safe food access. The review found that the motivations (why engage with the private sector), the means (how to engage) and the measures (was engagement successful for nutrition?) all suffer from a lack of information, evidence and opportunity. In other words, a programme such as MMW has the potential to add value. The review was the first of its kind, is a valuable public good in its own right, and it sets the stage for MMW.   

So how has MMW sought to realise this potential and help each stakeholder make markets work better to improve the consumption of safe, nutritious foods?

Governments: For governments seeking to make better investments in their food systems for healthier diets, together with Johns Hopkins University and FAO we have developed the Food Systems Dashboard, launched in June 2020. The Dashboard helps governments and businesses navigate their food systems to identify weak spots and initiate a conversation on how to fix them. This enables more specific and targeted actions to correct key food systems failures which can improve the diets of many millions of people.  

We are also working with several universities to develop a set of Evaluation Methods for Market-Based Interventions to assess their impact on nutritious food availability, affordability and purchase. Often we do not know enough about the benefits and costs of market interventions because of methodological challenges and these methods will help reveal the true costs and benefits of action (and inaction). It is easier to focus on discrete programmes interventions but reaching scale will require systemic changes to food systems.

To help governments understand when they are/are not promoting an enabling environment for business efforts to improve nutritious food access we have established EBANI, the Enabling Business to Advance Nutrition Index. Developed with Third Way Africa and the SUN Business Network, the index will be launched in 2021 and will help countries understand which policies and laws are promoting or undermining business efforts to do more for nutritious foods.  

Woman buying bananas from couple in Africa market

Nutritious foods such as pulses, eggs, milk, fruit, vegetables and fish are often unavailable or, because they are expensive, may end up exceeding an already small food budget. © Shutterstock

Consumers: To help consumers become more attracted to nutritious foods, we have designed a new Approach to Demand Generation that focuses on public sector marketing of healthy diets and nutritious unpackaged commodities (such as eggs). This is designed to act as a complement to business promotion of specific nutritious brands and as a counterpoint to the selling of unhealthy brands. 

We are also co-founding the Demand Generation Alliance which will aggregate fragmented public sector efforts to shape demand towards healthier foods and elevate efforts to do so with a launch at the Nutrition for Growth Summit in 2021.  

Businesses: To help small and medium sized companies - the backbone of local food systems - do more to make nutritious foods more available, affordable, desirable and safe we are working with the Access To Nutrition Initiative and the SUN Business Network to develop the Nutrition Business Monitor. This will be launched in 2021 to serve as a feedback loop for small and medium sized businesses to enable them understand the effect they have on nutrition and guide them on how they can do more. We have also developed a diagnostic tool, SCAN (Supply Chain Analysis for Nutrition), launched in 2019, to help businesses understand where the weak links are in the commodity chains they operate in (link). A diverse group of experts were engaged to surface innovations which are ready address these weak links, and have the potential to reduce the price of nutritious food, address food safety issues, and increase shelf life, in low and middle-income country settings. The top twelve innovations are described in the report "Nutritious Food Foresight – twelve ways to invest in nutrition".

Civil Society: Businesses, like all other stakeholders, need to be accountable for their impact on nutrition, both positive and negative. A plethora of mechanisms to hold businesses to account have developed in the past 8 years, to the point where the sheer burden of responding to all gives big businesses an incentive to disengage from all. These mechanisms need to be aligned to avoid duplication and multiple compliance requirements. Single data entry for businesses and complementary domain reporting across accountability mechanisms are the goals and we have convened an Aligning Accountability Initiative to help civil society improve the accountability of businesses.

All Stakeholders: Finally, we sought to help all the stakeholders trying to navigate the contested public private engagement space to improve nutrition. There are few maps outlining this terrain, and a wrong step here or there could have negative results for nutrition. Above all it is important to learn from others. Therefore, we created Nutrition Connect, launched in 2019, as a portal to connect information from and on the public and private sectors on what works and what does not in the public-private space.  

We also created the Together for Nutrition short course, launched in 2019, to create a cohort of leaders brought together from the public and private sectors to - together - identify opportunities and risks of working together and amplify the former and minimise the latter. 

The state will always be the lead when it comes to helping its population to achieve good nutrition outcomes. State leadership is not a cure-all, although its absence suffocates progress. But the state needs help from markets, and like in every other market, governments need to shape that market if it is to generate access to safe nutritious food that is affordable to all. The Making Markets Work programme has generated tools - and will generate many more - to help governments, businesses and civil society do just this and effect change at a scale and speed needed to tackle the growing burden of malnutrition.  

The old proverb "two heads are better than one" has never been truer. Meaningful strategic engagement between different stakeholders, including food businesses large or small, guided by evidence and working together to achieve the same goals, is a key to success if we want to improve the health and sustainability of diets. 

We are proud of the MMW programme. It is a first of its kind with its explicit ambitions to make markets work better as scaling mechanisms for nutritious food access. We thank our investor partners behind this programme, especially given its pioneering character: BMGF, BMZ, IDRC, Irish Aid, Government of the Netherlands, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Together, we can rebuild food systems and the markets they rely on to promote, not undermine, human health.