Bite the Talk Episode 16 : Bangladesh Wet Markets: Road to Recovery

Do you know what a wet market is? The term wet market is typically used to describe places in Asian countries that sell fresh vegetables, fruits, seafood, and meat in a non-supermarket setting. Wet markets are an essential part of food security in many countries. Today we're heading over to Bangladesh where wet markets were heavily impacted during the pandemic.

Full Podcast and transcript below

Daphne Ewing-Chow: This podcast will shine a light on people who are working to meet the 2030 targets of UN Sustainable Development Goal Number Two. My name is Daphne Ewing Chow. I'm a journalist and food systems advocate traveling the world and talking to those on the front lines of change, helping to overcome food related challenges in their own countries and communities.

In this podcast series powered by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition or GAIN, we will encounter a myriad of intersecting issues, themes and solutions. We will hear from regular folks like farmers, and mothers around the world trying to put nutritious food on the table for their families. We will also talk with food systems leaders, social entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and people like you.

Do you know what a wet market is? The term wet market is typically used to describe places in Asian countries that sell fresh vegetables, fruits, seafood, and meat in a non-supermarket setting. Wet markets are an essential part of food security in many countries. Today we're heading over to Bangladesh where wet markets were heavily impacted during the pandemic.


You see, there was a major fear around the potential of catching Covid 19 while shopping, and a heightened concern around food safety. Many market vendors, livelihoods were affected. 

In Dhaka, Bangladesh, Swiss NGO, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition or GAIN helped to alleviate consumer and vendor concerns through its Keeping Food Markets Working Programme and its EATSafe programme which it implemented with the goal of getting safe, nutritious foods to the people who needed them most.

GM Reza Sumon, project manager and co-lead of the Workforce Nutrition and EatSafe programmes at GAIN tells us more:

GM Reza Sumon: This project activity, we started during the Covid time to combat the Covid situation in the fresh market to... keep working the fresh market. It was in 2020, September. We basically started in two fresh markets in Dhaka south city corporation area.

So, in this project... Actually, we  started with the support of the market associations and also support of the vendors to fighting the... against the Covid 19, and also to make the consumers to get confident to get back again in the markets. So, the project actually ended in December, 2021.
But the model, the evidence we have generated that is actually... and now is everybody is actually appreciating for a model approach. So, this model market is actually the ideal of this Dhaka South City Corporation for the fresh and traditional markets, and also, other development partners: FAO is interested to work with us.

They also have a commitment to scale up this project in the other city operation area. But the work we have did, it's very interventive. We actually supported the vendors to resume their business because during the Covid times, it was a crucial moment. They have no idea. Market association and vendors have to shut down their business and go get back to their village.

But when we actually started this project and make the market more safe and hygienic  and food safety a concern, then... everyone actually appreciated that: "Okay, now this is safer". Consumers said, they get confidence and their business actually now growing. And it is very good opportunity to work with the market city of the operational working group and the technology group we have formed that also supported a lot.
So, are we actually, very much grateful that this kind of initiative we have actually started in these two fresh markets. So, now we have actually wrap up our activities, but work that we have done that is now taken by the response... we taken by the market association members. They're continuing this kind of activities and some infrastructure improvement that we actually did... That is, that was actually on the, based on the findings of the market association and the vendors and consumer's demand. So, we actually in a, where we actually fulfilled all of the priorities that actually would generate from the market.

So now this market is safe, clean, and also transforming and moving forward for a healthier and safe perspective model market in whole of the Dhaka City.  

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Dhaka Bonolata Market, or New Market, is a commercial shopping market in the north of Azimpur, in Dhaka, and it's the largest and one of the oldest markets in Bangladesh's Capital city. I visited the historical market to get a better idea of the changes that had been made by GAIN to keep the facility safe and had the opportunity to speak with a customer to find out what the market means to her and her family:

Daphne Ewing-Chow: How important is this market to her family? 

Translator: It is really important for the consumers in this market because they get everything from here and it has more options (sic).

Daphne Ewing-Chow: During the time when it was shut down, what did she experience? Like when it was closed? 

Translator: So, it is a long habit for her for its 30 years she's shopping from here, so it was disappointing for her. She actually couldn't do the shopping. As for as she liked to do it easily. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: I spoke with the members of the city corporation, which is the administrative body that oversees the market. Even though GAIN handed over the project in December, 2021, they have ensured that all of the measures that were implemented continue to be up and running.

Translator: Mr Shofiullah, he(inaudible) is the, joint senior security in the market, and also there is a president and the highest president also there, Mr. Mokhles (inaudible) And they actually supported to implement all of these activities and the improvement also. They're continuously... and they are taking the responsibilities now. You see that they have maintenance, all of the things by their own management.
Translator: So, few gaps were there in the market before GAIN came. So, they GAIN identified gaps and they work on the areas because they made developing the constructions... construction infrastructure was developed... sound system was introduced. The KAP security system, hand wash, and this kind of facilities was not there before GAIN was here. So, after GAIN come, these kinds of facilities they're providing. 

Our system, speech camera... hand washing system outside, drums for waste management, spray machines are here provided by GAIN. (Bangla)... the machine is good because the market is safe. Now it is disinfected and from the middle class to higher class... they come to shop here, so there's no issue of security, health security anymore. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow:  Can they tell me the importance of this market? To the culture in, in this city?

Translator: Since 1952, This is the most traditional market in the city ... They’re claiming Dhaka is the capital of Bangladesh, and this New market is the capital of Dhaka. So, the most ancient... and very, they're contributing most selling supermarket. If there is any celebration, people here, in Dhaka came because they have the most reasonable price and best food here (inaudible) So available fruits are there. (inaudible) So even any celebration, whatever the celebration is, people come here and buy. They're happy to buy here cause prices is low and food is good. 
Daphne Ewing-Chow Luckily with safety measures that were implemented by GAIN, the vendors were able to resume business and the number of customers attending the market began to increase.

Translator: His name is Akib, and he's doing the business for 13 years. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Okay. And can he tell me the nature of his business, what he sells and what he does? 

Translator: He's doing the business of the mutton 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Can he tell me what business was like before Covid and then during Covid? 

Translator: So, before Covid... it was good, but during the covid the market was totally shut down and almost closed.
Business was closed. Then the GAIN took the steps(inaudible) and they gave announcements. They gave them the sanitization and other system that that's helped him to come back the customers. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Can he tell me some of the emotions that he experienced? Can you tell me who he has at home, who he supports, and the emotions he felt when it was shut down and what he would've experienced personally?

Translator: So, the situation is very, very, very bad. The whole family is worried and he had to take loans from the relatives and others to run the expenses and they're really worried what's going to happen if the situation doesn't improve. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Can you tell me about the time when things started to get better? What kind of changes did you see at the market?

Translator: Sound. Sound, the system... the camera systems, and all over they have developed. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: What's, what's the change in the customers now? That what of the attitude of the customer? 

Translator: He say the customer, it cleaned and there there's a roads, (inaudible) tiles are given  on the floor. There's the difference they're seeing and also, the whole water system is available everywhere.

Daphne Ewing-Chow: And the Islambagh City Corporation wet market is one of the largest markets in old Dhaka. About 200 vendors operates in the market. And on average, approximately 2,500 consumers visit the market daily. During the pandemic due to food safety interventions put in place by GAIN, the market was able to remain open, which allowed vendors to benefit from an increase in business due to the closure of other markets.

I spoke with Zone Three Executive Officer with Dhaka, South City Corporation, Babor Ali Mir. And a vendor and member of the market committee, Nizam Uddin. 

Babor Ali Mir: My name is Babor Ali Mir. I'm Deputy Commissioner, Deputy Secretary to the government, and I'm employed here as Jonal Executive Officer, Zone 3 (inaudible) of Dhaka South City Corporation (inaudible)

It was interesting, also challenging at the time when.. Mr. Shakhawath Hossain communicated (inaudible) with me and we were passing a very hard day at the time because Corona Pandemic just set in... and I think we had to cross a lot of hurdles to make people out of this locality so that they use, you know, masks, hand gloves, and wash hands frequently, two to three times a day... Anymore, whenever they go out. 

Fresh market or wet market is essential. Essential place where people buy and sell all kinds of daily essentials ranging from, you know, edible oil to rice, flour, all kinds of vegetables, fishes, then beef, all those things that you need to survive in this world. So, they go there, they buy it. And they process it after taking it to home, and then there are housewives or housemates who are there at home, they cook it for them, but if this food doesn't contain any nutrition, then it is useless. It doesn't have any use to their body. So that is the main thing, GAIN Bangladesh is doing, I think they're playing a very crucial role in this regard. They're modelling both the things: one is, whether the food is nutritious enough and whether the people are consuming in a healthy way that they're buying and selling in a very healthy atmosphere.

That's the thing that they have issue and I, I think I (inaudible) was much fortunate to have cooperated with them, to, to participate with them, and to advise the people what they should. Especially during the Covid pandemic, the people who are coming to the market, they actually do not know that they can be infected.

They could be infected by the Covid 19, so, oh, we, what GAIN Bangladesh started (inaudible) here. They did, they made peopleaware. Sometimes they, they had seminars and symposiums with us and sometimes they invited me. I talked to the people who are the consumers and who are the sellers and buyers. We had an... you know, cross section interaction so we could convey our messages, what the consumers should do and what the sellers should do.

They, they got the hand sanitizer and liquid soap. All these things, they're put in a certain place of the market. And then entrances especially. So, whenever they're entering the market, they get the opportunity to wash their hands. So, visited the market one or two months later... from the earlier stage, it has change tremendously.

Rapid changes I found of the people, not only the changes, material changes, but also their nature (inaudible) has also changed. Yeah, so this is the main thing. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Nizam Uddin, a fish seller and market committee member immediately understood the importance of these tangible reforms in food safety standards. Not just for improved health, but also to keep business afloat during a time when many businesses were forced to shut.

Translator: So, they feel good because they have more space now, the customer can directly come here and they wear mask, and they feel that we're secure. Those kinds of feelings are there now.. We're now.... Feeling safe now. Because of GAIN, they could provide the security and safety. That's why they could keep it open, otherwise the government would've shut it down.

Daphne Ewing-Chow: GM Reza Sumon says that partnership was the key to success of the programme. 

GM Reza Sumon: So, the partnership basically that we have met with this project... basically here actually, there is some strategic partners, development partners, and from the government side, they submitted lots. The partners from the government side, City Corporation, and the municipality and the concernd Government Department, the Health Department, and the Food Safety Authority, they actually formed a technical working group for this, for this intervention of what can we do in the market?

So, based on the findings and the situation of the market, The technical working group actually... is  a group actually that, is formed with the multiplea  stakeholder, like the academy, the development partner, vendors, consumers, and the market association member also a part, so all everyone have a voice. They can actually bring all of the problems (they have) in these tables in this technical working group meeting and the city corporation. They finally, actually tell us, the go ahead and we did that. We actually built on their guidance. We actually did a lot of infrastructure improvement in the market. Also, their behaviour, since we have actually did some of the intervention.

So, the partnership is very valuable, and the suggestions that we received from this technical working group, that actually a... very... that was a very helpful to implement these projects and our development partner, FAO, World Bank and BRAC and others organisations that work closely because they are also supported in a different way And we jointly, actually, organised some interventions, some day observation, and some training sessions as well. So, this is actually available and they now believe that okay, GAIN can actually do this type of activities. So, this is actually very... make us confidence and also... in the future collaboration... it is also very important to make partnership with this kind of working group and the development partners and the local stakeholders.

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Regular EatSafe surveys that provided insights into the feelings and behaviours of vendors and consumers in the food markets revealed that before the pandemic, 30% of consumers felt that foods available in the market were unsafe to eat. But by January, 2021, this number had gone down to 2.5%. 

GM Reza Sumon: They did tremendous work when we... (inaudible) together used to visit that market and used to motivate people who are shopkeepers, parts in that market. Not only shopkeepers, consumers who are coming and people of across all of life, we will see very soon. So, a very clean, waste, free and liveable Dhaka. 

Daphne Ewing-Chow: By February, 2021, some six months after GAIN began implementing the safety measures. A 100% of surveyed vendors and consumers noticed useful measures in the market to protect people against Covid19. no customer survey respondents indicated any intention of switching markets and perceptions about the trustworthiness of vendors began to increase with time. Consumers who reported visiting the markets at least once a week increased from 67% in July to 73% in September.

And the share of consumers who considered most of there vendors majorly or extremely trustworthy increased from 80% to 87% during this period. The EatSafe and Keeping Food Markets Working Programmes, as implemented at the Bonolata and Islamabag wet markets delivered a promise of good health and nutrition and kept vendors businesses afloat during a very difficult time.

Read Daphne’s piece about Bangladeshi wet market support in Entrepreneur Magazine here.