Researching markets for frugal opportunities

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of posts by students from Michigan State University in the U.S. and LUANAR University in Malawi who participated in the Frugal Innovations Program of the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation.

By Mexford Mulumpa

After short presentations on Food Systems and action research methodology from our faculty members in the morning, in small groups we set off to the Tsoka and Central Markets and several super markets (Shoprite, Chipiku Plus and People Metro) in Lilongwe City.

We moved around, mainly making observations but also conducting informal interviews where possible.

It was quite interesting and adventurous to go into the markets and super markets this time,  although I have gone in them several times before. The discussions I had with my group members as we toured the markets made me more sensitive to the challenges and levels of innovations portrayed by the sellers. I discussed several issues with my group members. Among others they were planning issues, market associations, process and activities in buying and selling of food, infrastructure and institution constraints, innovative ways of marketing and quality control and food safety.

 Planning issues

We observed that the central market was well planned with special locations for those selling clothes, vegetables, contraction materials, fish, and meat among others. However, we noted that the market was highly congested, making it difficult for us to move around. We observed that this could be a result of the market being too small as compared to the high numbers of sellers in it. This problem could be sorted out with the expansion of the markets although there was no visible space to expand to.

Process and activity in buying, selling of food markets

We observed that sellers were approaching potential buyers to advertise their commodities. Sellers processed vegetables such as leaf vegetable and peas by removing them from their pods in the wet markets. In super markets several cookies and bread were being made by the supermarkets themselves to add value to their products. Some sellers were using loud speakers to advertise for their commodities especially clothes, shoes among others.

Market Association

Our faculty member, Dr. L. Banda, who had a chat with one of the market masters, observed that there is an overall market committee which represents the sellers in the markets to the city council. However, there are also several committees representing sellers of different food items such as a fish seller committee among others under the main market committee. There was no consumer committee observed on the ground.


We observed that the infrastructure was quite poor on the wet markets as in some instances vegetables were being sold under no shade at all. The pavements within the wet market were bumpy and we presumed that during the rainy season it could be a big problem. Most of the present structures were temporary. They were too close, hence fire could easily spread among them.

Innovative ways of marketing

We found some sellers packaging their honey from a bucket into small bottles for selling to the consumers. Some fish sellers were putting a small curved wire rack on which fish were skillfully arranged to be attractive to the customers. We also observed that the potatoes were arranged in a way that the bigger ones were in front to attract the customers. Some sellers sprinkled water on top of the vegetables, fruits and fresh fish to keep them fresh. Dry or smoked fish were sprayed or brushed with cooking oil to make them shiney and attract customers.

Quality and food safety issues

We observed that most of the food quality was good, although their safety could not be guaranteed. However, generally poor quality was observed on some vegetables, fruits and fresh fish from both wet markets and the super markets. This was generally because they are highly perishable food items and mostly they were poorly stored. The general poor sanitation in markets poses major concerns in food safety issues.

Types of wet-markets in Malawi

There are two major types of markets that we observed:  open-air-markets and moving markets. Moving markets are special types of wet-markets that are only available on specific market days. These markets were characterized by the following:

  • They are very flexible as they sell what is on demand and their prices are prone to negotiations, unlike super markets.
  • They source their food items from rural areas where the super markets do not go.
  • They have low profit margins and are driven by people striving to get a living.
  • They increase food choices to the urban population.
Challenges observed

Sanitation was the major challenge, especially in wet-markets.

Some people were unwilling to provide information during our research on the wet markets.

The central wet-market was highly congested and difficult to move around freely.

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