Long case study: Keeping Food Markets Working in Pemba, Mozambique

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When COVID-19 hit the port city of Pemba in northern Mozambique, it was already facing a series of socio-economic, public health and environmental challenges. From early 2020 until late 2021, the pandemic caused an economic downturn and local health crisis, creating new issues for the city and amplifying existing ones. The municipal government was heavily burdened by the pandemic, as the overseer of local food systems, utilities, healthcare provision and sanitation services. The source of food for many residents and traditional urban markets were badly hit. As in the rest of Mozambique – and Sub-Saharan Africa more widely – the disruptions to these urban food markets reduced the access to safe and nutritious foods for vulnerable urban communities, like women, children, the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions and those on low incomes. The increasing number of people seeking refuge in Pemba from Mozambique’s far north – where insurgent violence was intensifying – placed further pressure on an already fragile food system.The economic situation of communities centred around urban markets was bleak. As a result of the pandemic job and income loss was widespread, not just for market vendors and workers but also for a range of linked small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), such as produce transporters and small-scale farmers. In response to this convergence of crises, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) launched an emergency initiative, called Keeping Food Markets Working (KFMW). Pemba was one of six urban locations in Africa and Asia where its ‘policy and coordination’ workstream was active. This workstream involved local policymakers, market committees, vendors and other urban food system stakeholders working together to gather evidence and co-design bespoke policy options for the municipal authority. Taking local gender sensitivities into account, its aim was to empower people in the markets and enhance local policymakers’ decision-making in terms of keeping urban traditional markets working during the current crisis – and any future shocks. This case study looks at the process and resulting policy options toolkit for Pemba. 

Key Insights

  • Good governance – and knowing your city and its food system network – is a cornerstone to resilient urban food systems
  • Focus on empowering residents to shape and support a resilient urban food system
  • City local governments can use existing global networks to share knowledge about sustainable urban food systems approaches (see Food Action Cities).
  • A participatory, evidence-based approach is essential to empowering stakeholders and thereby understanding the city’s unique pandemic context and food system.

Context and objectives

Food insecurity was widespread in Mozambique before the arrival of COVID-19. In February 2020, the country was estimated to have 1.6 million people living with severe to acute food insecurity and 67.5 thousand acutely malnourished children.1 At the start of the pandemic, this situation was projected to worsen, with a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths2. Nationwide, an estimated three million residents were projected to face high levels of food insecurity, across the country.1

The national government did not counter COVID-19 with a full lockdown. To contain the spread of the virus, an evening curfew was introduced – as well as mandatory face mask wearing and social distancing measures. As the pandemic progressed, the economic outlook worsened and the vast majority of Mozambicans (82% of women and 86% of men) reported a decrease in household income.3 Market workers were particularly badly affected. Not only were their trading hours reduced, but social distancing measures cut the number of stalls in food markets. Mandatory face mask wearing, handwashing requirements and intermittent border closures all further impaired market operations. 

Local economic trends in Pemba – the capital of the oil-and-gas-rich Cabo Delgado Province – mirrored national ones. However, the situation was made much worse as Cabo Delgado had been the location of violent anti-government insurgency since 2017. During the pandemic, in early 2021, the fighting escalated and thousands of families fled the northern conflict area, initially arriving in the town of Palma. When violence followed them, a large number of the survivors took refuge in Pemba – including many unaccompanied children.

The arrival of so many displaced people sent shockwaves through the former tourist destination’s already precarious food system in. By June 2021, the United Nations stated that more than 900,000 people in Cabo Delgado Province were severely food insecure.5   The chaotic situation also put women and children at risk of gender-based violence and sexual exploitation. Some displaced people were so desperate they resorted to marrying off their underage daughters to men perceived to have money and/or resources.5

Situated on a peninsula sticking out into the Indian Ocean, Pemba was also repeatedly rocked by environmental disasters. In 2019, Cyclone Kenneth, the strongest in modern records to hit Mozambique, made landfall just to the north of the city. Widespread damage was caused to roads, homes, livelihoods and public health.6 In early 2020, there was flooding. Later in the year, the vegetable growing season was marred by drought. 

In a city where the population has disproportionately high levels of diseases like malaria, HIV/AIDS and cholera, the impacts in terms of both food security and public health were severe. In April 2021, the Famine Early Warning Systems network projected that the local food security outlook for much of the rest of the year would be at crisis level.The incidence of infectious diseases among children rose, partly because of their poor access to clean drinking water.8

It is in these circumstances that COVID-19 spread. With so many other public health concerns and displaced people staying with wider family members in the kind of overcrowded conditions that the virus favours, it quickly became what the Red Cross described as a national ‘epicentre’.9

The action needed

Under the ‘policy and coordination’ workstream of the emergency KFMW programme, GAIN engaged in a participatory, gender-sensitive manner with local policymakers, market committees, vendors and other urban food system market stakeholders in Pemba. 

The approach was to quickly gather evidence about traditional urban food markets and the wider food system during the COVID-19 pandemic. Then GAIN worked with local stakeholders to co-design a selection of tailormade practical policy options, to be presented to the local government in the form of a toolkit. 

All the policy options were linked to real, evidence-based problems that had been identified and prioritised by local stakeholders. They all had the capacity to be scaled up and to build long-term resilience into the local food system. Taking local government mandates, budgets and pre-existing food-nutrition policies into account, they could be implemented on their own or ‘mixed and matched’ with other policies.  Providing widespread access to the policy options toolkit was critical. Consequently, GAIN undertook a communications campaign, in the form of additional workshops for key audiences.

Actions Taken

In July 2020, planning for the KFMW programme began. Implementation of the policy and coordination workstream started in late September 2020. Final workshops were conducted in November 2021, when the Pemba Policy Options Toolkit became available. The objective was to empower market stakeholders, enhance local government food policymaking – and, ultimately, ensure the most vulnerable local people had access to nutritious food by keeping urban markets working.

The first step was to define the problems hindering market operations, explore their causes and prioritise the challenges. This started by mapping out each market’s stakeholders, including vendors, market committee members and local food governance personnel – as well as the food systems linked to the markets. 

Food systems are made up of the people, animals, institutions, ecosystems and infrastructure that relate to food production, retail, consumption, diets, nutrition and health.10 They are shaped by external forces like globalization, trade, politics, income distribution, population dynamics, society, culture and the environment.

The food environment is an integral part of the food system. Understanding it is key to responding to the needs and opportunities of vulnerable urban communities. It forms the link between food supply chains and household acquisition and consumption of food. As well as food producer/retailer messaging and marketing, it is concerned with food’s diversity, affordability, quality, safety and desirability.11

Once the mapping was completed, Rapid Needs Assessments were conducted via vendor surveys, interviews and focus groups. Two policy workshops ensued, in which local stakeholders co-designed policy options. 

GAIN policy experts facilitated the workshops and shared pertinent examples of best practice from around the world. They did this through a multi-stakeholder process adapted from the Overseas Development Institute’s toolkit.12 It involved setting out a problem statement and then mapping its causes. GAIN used the results to create a unique food policy toolkit specific to Pemba. 

Who is involved

This policy workstream was part of GAIN’s wider KFMW programme. As well as local Mozambican and global GAIN teams, in Pemba it involved market vendors, women vendor groups, market committees and SMEs linked to traditional urban food markets – as well as county government policymakers. 

Enabling factors

An expert advisory panel, comprising of 12 members, provided guidance and support for the whole KFMW programme. At least two experts were based in each of the countries where the programme ran (Kenya, Mozambique and Pakistan). Their areas of expertise included public health, food systems, food safety, food-related SMEs and urban governance. Eighty per cent of the panel were women. Additionally, there were two GAIN co-chairs, Ann Trevenen-Jones, based in the Netherlands and Obey Nkya, based in Tanzania.

Difficulties faced

Challenges were two-fold. They either related to market stakeholders’ pandemic experiences or to practicalities around evidence-gathering and policy option co-design. 

Vendors reported a significant decrease in customer numbers during the pandemic. They also said supplier prices had gone up and that their deliveries were delayed —with some stopping altogether. Due to transportation issues and public health restrictions, they highlighted the increasing amount of food being lost and wasted along the supply chain and in the markets, which was also causing food prices to rise. 

They were compliant with pandemic safety measures but reported that many customers were not and that overall compliance had slackened over time. In some instances, teenagers were said to be standing in for the usual adult vendors because the regulations did not require them to wear masks. 

Market workers described an increase in women and children selling food informally in the streets. Indeed, they said many of the vendors were forced to leave official city markets and become street vendors because of social distancing restrictions and market cyclone damage in the main markets. In addition, the influx of people fleeing the northern conflict zone had led to the creation of a series of unregulated mini food markets. With vendors selling food from the ground, not from stalls, and no toilet or handwashing stations, creating additional health risks.

Market infrastructure problems were rife. Although vendors understood that Pemba was still recovering from Cyclone Kenneth’s destruction, most felt that all markets needed improved basic services – like cold room storage, clean water sources, sanitation facilities, reliable energy services and waste management. The situation was even worse for informal vendors. 

There was a general belief that government pandemic communications could be improved – especially by letting those working in urban markets know about food availability and further issues and risks.When it came to evidence-gathering and policy option co-design, difficulties arose in conducting some aspects of the Rapid Needs Assessment – such as market vendor surveys, key informant interviews and focus groups – because of successive waves of COVID-19 and related restrictions. The process was also impeded by ongoing issues like the reduction of vendors in the market due to income and/or employment loss, ill health or their removal outside the official market perimeter. 

Impacts to date

The result, to date, is that the Toolkit provides the Pemba city government with a raft of real-world ideas for improving local food policymaking. It outlines market stakeholders’ priorities and linked policy options in ten areas:

Dealing with cyclone-damaged market infrastructure was the top priority. Workable solutions included the investigation of public-private partnership funding and the creation of gender-balanced stakeholder teams to co-design new marketplaces.

In terms of market overcrowding, policy options included the creation of a fairer selection process when deciding which vendors must move outside markets due to social distancing. Another suggestion was helping those vendors by mapping urban spaces that could be used as temporary market locations, like car parks or schools. 

Possible policies linked to water and sanitation facilities included the appointment of market sanitation and hygiene champions.

Social media campaigns around food safety was one of the policies proposed to alleviate cold storage issues. 

To deal with the surge in informal vendors, policies facilitating their official registration were considered. Similarly, issues around the rise of informal mini street markets could be managed through collaboration with their stakeholders to map them and thereby support informed local government decision-making.

When it came to disrupted food chains – caused by damaged road networks and border closures with South Africa and Zimbabwe – options included the strengthening of indigenous, year-round food production and the promotion of urban agriculture in municipal institutions, like schools.

Food waste and quality could be addressed by giving perishable food sellers – like fishmongers and bakers – special dispensation to sell during curfew hours. Local government contracts could be given to perishable produce vendors – to supply school, hospital and municipal canteens. 

Policy options for the effective use of urban green space for agriculture included the mapping of suitable private and public locations.

When it comes to income and job loss, one possible solution is the creation of a public works programme in con­junction with the national government to provide short-term relief. Finally, financial and mental health stress could be alleviated by policies designed to assist those without the necessary documentation to apply for social safety net support.


  1. Mozambique I Addressing the impacts of COVID-19 in food crises (fao.org)
  2. Mozambique: WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard With Vaccination Data | WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard With Vaccination Data
  3. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/fi les/resources/mozambique_rga_infographics.pdf
  4. Horror in Cabo Delgado: Unaccompanied children arrive in Pemba after violence | Save the Children International
  5. Mozambique_Humanitarian_Response_Dashboard_UptoApril2021_Draft 4.ai (reliefweb.int)
  6. Cyclones Idai and Kenneth | OCHA (unocha.org)
  7. Conflict in Cabo Delgado continues to displace households and disrupt livelihoods (reliefweb.int)
  8. Conflict in Cabo Delgado continues to displace households and disrupt livelihoods (reliefweb.int)
  9. Mozambique: Families seek shelter during COVID-19 | ICRC
  10. LPE Report # 12 – Nutrition and food systems (fao.org)
  11. Concepts and critical perspectives for food environment research: A global framework with implications for action in low- and middle-income countries – ScienceDirect
  12. ODI. Toolkit, Successful Communication, A Toolkit for Researchers and Civil Society Organisations. www.odi.org/ publications/5258-problem-tree-analysis

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