The Bolivian diet has become westernised but traditional food and cuisine are still enjoyed. Traditional wholesale and retail food markets are the backbone of the country’s food supply. Eateries in these markets, serving up traditional dishes, are bastions of culinary heritage; the flavours, spices and sounds offer a feast for the senses.
These eateries are a crucial source of affordable nutrition for the working class. And in terms of livelihoods, provide jobs for tens of thousands of people.
Yet they are mostly invisible in policy planning. The IIED-Hivos Sustainable Diets for All programme uses evidence to support policies that improve access to sustainable, affordable, and nutritious food.
As part of the programme we have been learning about the vendors working in market eateries in La Paz – what motivates them, the challenges they face.
Drawing on the principle of ‘citizen agency’ – core to the SD4All programme – we used a citizen science approach that involved non-scientists in the research process. But rather than the non-scientists being simply data collectors, as we often see in crowd-sourcing experiments, we tried our hand at something more radical: involving people from the beginning and letting them decide the research objectives and questions.
We wanted the vendors to drive the research, making them stakeholders and owners of the project, not passive research subjects. Would they be willing to choose the topic of research? And conduct it themselves, in their own places of work?
Agreeing the topic was challenging. It took a long time to understand the vendors’ concerns and gauge their interest in carrying out the research. Gaining trust wasn’t easy: vendors link outsiders to an establishment that has often been hostile to them and in their minds, we were certainly part of that establishment.
And market eateries are perceived as outdated by Bolivian elites – vendors would rather operate on the margins than be judged on their practices by outsiders.
Here we describe the research process, what we found and what we learned.
How we did it
Food vendors are busy. Most of them are women, juggling their food businesses, taking care of their families and managing their households. Persuading them to take notice of us and our research proposal was a challenge. But through exchanging recipes, techniques and ingredients with young Bolivian chefs who donated their time, we won their confidence. Finally, a group of around 20 vendors from two markets (Achumani and Obrajes) agreed to work with us.
Together, the vendors agreed the research topic: how could they keep their clients, in the face of growing competition from other food vendors? We worked with them to design a research questionnaire that clients would fill out with information on what they want from food vendors.
Research findings: what clients want
The questionnaires showed clients were happy with the food. This was reassuring as the vendors had thought they would need to change their recipes or bring more variety to their menus to improve business. In fact, what customers wanted was to see was improvements in the actual eating spaces: more space, comfier chairs, sturdier tables.
The vendors’ reception to the feedback was mixed. For example, they were dismissive of the few customers who thought their food was too expensive. “How can I possibly sell any cheaper?”, complained one. On the facilities, they agreed that the markets could benefit from renovation, but were wary of the costs and said government support would be needed.
What we learned
Informal but organised: although market eateries appear informal, we soon learned they are highly organised. Each sector within the market (butchers, groceries, fresh produce sellers, and so on) delegates a vendor who represents them on a board.
Those board representatives then choose a main leader – the Maestra Mayor – who mediates all market matters on behalf of the vendors, such as with local authorities or the media. All conversations go through the Maestra Mayor; our research would not have been possible without their mediation.
Building trust takes time: the vendors were initially suspicious of us. They distrust people from the outside coming in and asking questions. They were unfamiliar with the concept of ‘research’ and saw the taking part as something that would burden their already busy routines. However, once we began talking to them, we gained their trust and they came round to seeing how the research might improve their businesses, increase sales or attract more clients.
Patience and flexibility are essential: research that involves citizens requires time, patience and flexibility. This is a challenge given that most projects – and donors – put pressure on timeframes and deliverables.
Be prepared to adjust expectations: we hoped our research, which involved interacting with other stakeholders such as government officials would give the vendors more voice, and their work more visibility. But we learned that most preferred to remain ‘invisible’. This prompted us to ask: was our citizen-led research really going to promote the interests of informal food vendors? Or was this research just important for us, to help us achieve the aims of our SD4All project?
Even with evidence, action is not automatic: research conducted by and for citizens opens new opportunities for initiating constructive dialogue with decision makers. But citizen-led research alone will not automatically translate into action. Both parties need plenty of time to interact and communicate. And the capacity and will to do so.
This research helped us learn more about market eateries and their business models, about the concerns of food vendors facing increased competition and ways to bridge communication between two parties of the food system: vendors and clients.
We showed that evidence can be a first step towards communication, and stronger communication can help shape better, more inclusive food policies in a changing setting.