Asking the big questions

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 Christine Sauer,

Aug. 16, 2015

The demands and stresses of day-to-day life often leave no room to ponder life’s big questions.  We find ourselves so caught up in classes, work, household chores, and so on, that we lack the time to reflect.  In contrast, during this practicum, we are constantly grappling with the big questions.

For example, in my market in Area 47, the big issue seems to be the placing and structure of the market itself.  Vendors at Area 47 face stiff competition from other, bigger markets nearby (including Tsoka Market, another market under study during the practicum) that offer a greater variety of products, sometimes at a cheaper price (e.g., at Tsoka, fruits and veggies are sold at wholesale price).  How can Area 47 vendors effectively compete, and consequently improve their livelihoods, in the face of such challenges?  What frugal innovations can we capture that would sustainably address these challenges?

Another issue facing Area 47 is the structure of the market itself.  The main entrance to the market is off a quiet road, whereas the back of the market lies adjacent to a busy intersection.  There are no signs or advertisements that the market is just within the brick wall facing the street; it is essentially hidden from view.

Many Lilongwe residents driving home after work might want to stop and pick up ingredients for dinner, but maybe they don’t know the market exists, or maybe it is just too much of a hassle to get to the main market entrance.  Why did the market planners design the market in such a way?  Why can’t the rear side of the market be opened up to create another entrance?  (We were told that it is a city policy that markets cannot open directly onto a street).  Is there anything else that can be done to promote the Area 47 market?

These big questions are what we are going to explore in this week’s focus group discussions and individual interviews.  We ultimately seek to elicit ideas and innovations from the market vendors themselves, to encourage them to come up with their own frugal innovations to improve their situations in the market.  I personally feel so privileged to take these two weeks and dedicate the time solely to pondering the big issues in urban food markets in Lilongwe.

The research method we are using in the practicum is action research.  This methodology focuses mainly on “community-based study” and “cooperative inquiry” in order to “generate solutions to practical problems.”  To facilitate this, we have been using the following cycle: Plan -> Act -> Observe -> Reflect -> Plan -> Act -> …. etc.  I feel that we could all become better citizens and more well-rounded people if we could implement this method in our daily lives.  Even though we may be busy and sometimes overwhelmed, I see a lot of benefit in taking the time to reflect, observe, and ponder those big questions.

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