Binational, cross-disciplinary program teaches frugal innovation

Trish Abalo speaks with a vendor in Tsoka Market. Photo Credit: Alyssa Cleland
MSU student Trish Abalo speaks with a vendor in Tsoka Market. Photo Credit: Alyssa Cleland

What kind of program needs nursing, social science, political theory and agribusiness management majors?

Those fields and more are encompassed by an innovative food education program developed by Stephanie White, a researcher at Michigan State University’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovation. She developed the Frugal Innovation Practicum after studying urban legume retailers in Malawi last year.

The Global Center for Food Systems Innovation trains students to become development workers, White said. “It seemed to me there was a forum there for students to learn.”

A year later White took eight MSU students to Malawi for two weeks to work with eight students and six faculty members from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture & Natural Resources in that African country.

Their goal: find ways to improve markets in Lilongwe, the nation’s capital.

Multiple majors
The practicum is designed to explore how students of different disciplines tackle problems challenging real people, White said.

It is “an experiential learning opportunity where they are collaborating on real-life situations, and also being able to draw from their own distinct backgrounds to problem solve.”

Kevin Mills, who majors both in political theory and finance at MSU, said he feared he might not understand what was going on.

“But as I started reading into it, I realized that food systems and market interactions rely heavily on not just finance and business along all of the supply chain and food system, but also on political institutions and policies that regulate this market,” Mills said.

The students’ work is different from other research already done in Lilongwe because it relied much more on interactions with vendors instead of the decision makers, he said.

“It really incorporated them and included them in the dialogue of how they can better the marketplace.”

Learning some words in Chichewa, the main language spoken in Malawi,   enhanced the effort, said Trish Abalo, who majors in interdisciplinary studies in health and society.

“For me, adding that depth and that dimension to the concepts we are learning really gave a good base for evolving questions throughout the practicum,” Abalo said.

Members of the Frugal Innovations Practicum pose for a photo while on a training trip in Detroit.
MSU students in the Frugal Innovations Practicum on a training trip in Detroit. Photo: Alyssa Cleland

Prep work
The students took five weeks of online coursework to gain background in informal markets, food security and other issues.

They also had online discussions with students from LUANAR, an agricultural and natural resources college in Lilongwe. While the LUANAR students helped with the research, the MSU students took the opportunity to find out everything from their counterpart’s favorite foods to their history, Abalo said.

Before they left for Malawi, the students had one week of in–class training on gender perspectives, communication techniques and innovative learning styles. And they went to Detroit to see a food system in action.

Hands–on research in urban food markets is about improving food security in cities, White said. “Food is not a big focus for city officials. [The research is] more about supporting the food system and food exchange so that it provides accessible and healthy food for the city as it develops.”

In the field
During two weeks in Malawi, the students interviewed people working in urban markets. They were split into teams, each assigned to one of four different markets.

They were taught to be observant. Each team was charged with creating a map of the market they researched.

“It sort of forces them to look around and look at what’s there,” White said. “It’s important for them to get a sense of where the people that they’ll be interviewing are working and to get a sense of what questions they might want to ask.

“So at first, it was very focused on observation.”

The students agreed that agribusiness management major Jodie Zhu’s map of Central Market was the best one. She made multiple drafts, starting with basic streets and alleyways and adding details.

Central Market “is the largest and the busiest and oldest market in Lilongwe itself,” Zhu said. “It took us a couple days to come up with this map.”

Jodie Zhu's map of Central Market in Lilongwe, Malawi.
Jodie Zhu’s map of Central Market in Lilongwe, Malawi.

Zhu joined the practicum because she wanted to help farmers like her grandmother in China.

The main solution the teams found was to increase communication between the market vendors and the decision makers.

“People would talk about things being a problem, but did not have the proper forums to discuss them,” White said.
The Tsoka Market is created by vendors. It has better communication among the vendors than the others, said Lindsay Strong, an MSU nursing student.

“The vendors in Tsoka Market are so great with working with one another,” Strong said. “Their level of communication is very transparent.”

Her team focused on finding people inside the market who could make improvements even after the students left.

A legumes vendor named Ruth, whom White had met on a previous trip, helped Strong’s team find these change agents, including a potato vendor named George who helped identify market problems.

“George asked the tough questions,” Strong said. “He said: ‘They’re paying dues every month for their stall. They’re paying 100 kwacha. They are wondering where that money is going. It’s supposed to be going back into the markets, but it’s not going back into the markets.’”

George also helped raise money for a market shed to keep produce fresh longer, Strong said. She was sure he would continue to improve the market.

Although communication between vendors in Tsoka Market was better than elsewhere, the vendors still had trouble communicating with city officials.

They wanted more accountability from the Lilongwe City Council about how and where their dues were spent, Strong said.

“When we came in people were so overjoyed that we were actually listening and sitting down and listening to what they were saying,” she said.

MSU student Lindsay Strong and LUANAR student Tchiywe Thandiwe Moyo make observations in Tsoka market. Photo: Alyssa Cleland
MSU student Lindsay Strong and LUANAR student Tchiywe Thandiwe Moyo make observations in Tsoka market. Photo: Alyssa Cleland

The team suggested that the City Council meet quarterly with vendors about their problems and report monthly on how their dues are spent.

Another problem is a lack of money to help businesses grow and allow vendors to take more risks, said Lauren Lucas, who studies social science at MSU.

The focus of the practicum was to suggest changes that did not need a lot of money, Lucas said. “We couldn’t confidently suggest a specific scheme to access money. Nor could we provide any resources to do so.”

Her team’s work in another market also focused on communications to ease roadblocks preventing vendors from lending and borrowing money.

The program “didn’t allow for a simple solution,” Lucas said. “We had to explore the intertwining systems, and forget any Band–Aid–like solutions like tossing money at a problem.”

Vendors at the Area 47 market couldn’t always make a livelihood, said Christine Sauer, an incoming masters student in Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics. “Every time we were there it seemed like there were no customers.”

Sauer, the only MSU student assigned to this market, said it had less than 30 vendors. One said he was lucky to get one customer a day, she said.

“I think these stories and these ideas really were eye-opening for my group,” Sauer said. “Because these vendors…they work really hard to source their products. They stay in the market all day hoping for a few customers. This is their main source of income. This is their livelihoods, but all they can do is hope for the best.”

The students discovered that the markets had problems with access to water and electricity, White said. And they had few resources to improve their businesses.

The Central Market had 10,000 to 20,000 customers a day, said Devin Foote, a masters student in the Department of Community Sustainability.

Foote, who helped create the practicum, led a team that conducted three focus groups that helped recommend solutions.

The focus groups allowed vendors to talk about their business problems openly, White said.

“The idea is to get people actually discussing the issues that the students had identified, and to get them discussing in a way that would lead towards solutions.”

Students conducting a focus group with vendors in Central market.
Students conducting a focus group with vendors in Central market. Photo: Alyssa Cleland

Many people did not think about financial stability in the span of years, but instead in the span of days, Foote said.

“As a graduate student that is looking at issues domestically, it was very mind–opening,” he said.

Kevin Gamble, a director of knowledge systems at MSU Global, helped students with the digital aspects of their online coursework and discussions. He also accompanied them to Malawi. He praised the program on his return.

“It makes you appreciative of the type of work we get to do at Michigan State,” Gamble said via Skype during student presentations that concluded the program.

The main impact comes from what the students learned from the experience, he said.

Measures of success
The practicum may not have a lasting effect on the markets in Lilongwe, White said.

And yet it was a success. It gave the students experience in real-world issues where they may never have considered using their degrees.

“I think it will have a lasting effect on the students,” White said.

Abalo said the experience changed her.

“I’m going to carry it with me for the rest of my life,” she said at the group’s final presentation.

Zhu said it made her want to learn more about the issues facing African countries. She is considering making it a focus of her graduate work.

MSU student, Trish Abalo, speaks with a vendor in Tsoka market. Photo: Alyssa Cleland
MSU student, Trish Abalo, speaks with a vendor in Tsoka market. Photo: Alyssa Cleland

LUANAR students also benefitted.

Mexford Mulumpwa wrote in the course blog that he wants to use the skills he learned in this practicum where he works at LUANAR’s Senga Bay Fisheries Research Center.

“I marveled at how the vendors were cooperative,” Mulumpwa wrote. “The strategies our faculty members guided us with really worked for us. I enjoyed each one of them.”

If the information they gained is used by future academics, it can help create a new approach to addressing food system issues in Malawi, and also provide a forum to make change possible, White said.

“If we don’t follow through, we could lose relationships the students created for us,” White said.

Looking ahead
White hopes to resume the program next year with an increased emphasis on learning about the Malawian culture and communication styles.

“The challenge will be figuring out how to pay for it on a yearly basis,” she said.

This year the practicum was free to students, helping White recruit those who were hard–working, committed and had a tenacity for caring.

“If I could only pick students that could pay for it, I’d be a little worried that it wouldn’t help the students that would benefit most from being able to participate,” White said.

If he had to pay for it, “I wouldn’t have been able to go,” Mills said.
White called the practicum the best experience of her professional career.

The students were adventurous, tenacious, committed, flexible, good-natured and courageous, she said.

“I am very proud of them and very grateful to them too.

“There were numerous vendors in the markets who were generous with their time and their perspectives.

“The task now is to make good on the generosity we experienced, and to follow through with commitment and effective approaches to improving urban food environments and food-based livelihoods.”

LUANAR and MSU students at Lake Malawi
LUANAR and MSU students at Lake Malawi
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