MSEs in Food Systems Key to Affordable, Healthy Foods

About 60 percent of rural and urban Kenyan households access daily meals from micro/small enterprises (MSEs) at local markets. Even though as much as MSEs have a significant contribution to shaping food access and consumption, these enterprises have received little policy attention and support, with their role in the food systems not well understood.

As Kenya continues facing the triple burden of malnutrition – overnutrition (obesity), micronutrient deficiency, and undernutrition – the role of MSEs is now more than ever crucial. Based on an assertion of a report by the Scaling Micro-businesses for Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems in Kenya (SME4NutritionKE) project, which was carried out by Wasafiri Consulting Kenya, Village Enterprise, and Shack Dwellers International, between April 2021 and March 2023.

The report was developed after a project, implemented in Bungoma, Nairobi, and West Pokot counties, and funded by the International Development Research Centre, which sought to identify how best to support MSEs in contributing to food system transformation by providing affordable, healthy, and sustainable food.

In most Kenyan households, the report notes, food consumption diversity is low, with people consuming just three types of foods out of a possible 20. This is due to high food costs, low household incomes, highly seasonal availability, and weak preferences for some foods; a majority of which is directly related to the role of agri-food MSEs.

Combined with a shift in Kenyan consumption patterns – away from traditional foods towards convenient, highly-processed foods – these factors are exacerbating the issue of malnutrition. To encourage greater diet diversity and healthier food choices by consumers, the report authors argue that MSEs need greater policy support to provide a wider choice of food options at affordable prices.

Currently, MSEs face an unfavorable business environment and come up against various challenges in sustaining their agri-enterprises and providing affordable food. Issues include a lack of working capital and financial support from lending institutions, unreliable supplies and suppliers, high sourcing and operational costs, as well as high rates of payment defaults when offering food on credit to customers.

Dr. Hezekiah Agwara, Project Leader and Co-Principal Investigator for Wasafiri said that the government-led food and nutrition strategies in place have not been addressing the role of small businesses in the food system.

Dr. Agwara presented the research findings to nutrition sector stakeholders, including government officials in food, nutrition, and trade, at the SME4Nutrition National Stakeholders’ Forum, held in Nairobi which was about facilitating dialogue on maximizing the contribution of MSEs in the food system space.

Participants at the SME4Nutrition National Stakeholders’ Forum, held in Nairobi.

“We wanted to find out how these businesses influence food systems and identify the challenges they face, as well as the policies and interventions in place that can be adapted to help resolve those challenges,” Dr. Agwara continued.

Dr. Agwara further explained that addressing MSE challenges requires proactive interventions, such as reduction or waiver of business taxes, or food market-targeted subsidies. Another key report recommendation is to encourage MSEs to form associations that give them a voice and platform at the national level to advocate their issues.

“Traditional foods like millet, sorghum, sweet potatoes, and cassava are highly nutritious but we have neglected them. Working with various players, both in the national and county government, we are looking at how to enhance food system productivity to boost our country’s food security using these foods,” said Susan Mang’eni, the Principal Secretary, of the State Department for MSMEs Development, Ministry of Cooperatives, at the SME4Nutrition Forum.

PS Susan Mang’eni further added that there’s a need for innovation in traditional farming practices and the incorporation of small businesses in the food systems. The PS went ahead whilst emphasizing the need to encourage more small businesses to embrace traditional foods to boost diet diversification.

Susan Mang’eni, the Principal Secretary of, the State Department for MSMEs Development, Ministry of Cooperatives was the chief guest at the SME4Nutrition Forum delivering her keynote address.

“The project sought to bring MSE challenges to the floor of policymakers by sharing the research findings from the three counties – as well as recommendations on how to best engage with small businesses to provide the support they require to become sustainable. Providing financial support to MSEs to enable them to grow their businesses will ultimately lead to greater availability of affordable food in the market. This, in turn, promotes nutrition among consumers who have a greater variety of food to choose from,” Dr. Agwara concluded.

As a result of successful project stakeholder engagement meetings, program and policy interventions have been established for each county. For example, in Bungoma, the County Government – together with The Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry – Bungoma Chapter – will continue convening with other actors to facilitate MSE advocacy policy, market linkages, access to training and advisory services, and information and practice sharing.

Whereas in West Pokot, the medical center Equity Afia is committed to working with local health and nutrition stakeholders to address low household dietary diversity through interactive educational programs in local radio stations in local languages.

Not forgetting that in Nairobi, the County Government is setting up a Food Liaison Advisory Group – a multi-stakeholder platform representing the voices of various food system actors whose mandate is to flag potential food system-related problems and advise decision-makers on integrated approaches that permit sustainable food system planning.

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